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UTEP Degrees Help Prepare Women for Successful FBI Careers

Retired Special Agent Blanca Rivera never considered a career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation until she met an FBI agent at her school's career day. A high school chemistry teacher at the time, everything Rivera knew about the FBI was from watching television cop shows or movies such as "Silence of the Lambs."

From left, Special Agent Eliza Reyes, Retired Special Agent Blanca Rivera and Supervisory Agent Aida Reyes represent three of the women who make up the FBI, which celebrated 50 years of women special agents in 2022. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP Marketing and Communications
From left, Special Agent Eliza Reyes, Retired Special Agent Blanca Rivera and Supervisory Agent Aida Reyes represent three of the women who make up the FBI, which celebrated 50 years of women special agents in 2022. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP Marketing and Communications

"For me, joining the FBI was way above my head," said Rivera, who graduated from The University of Texas at El Paso in 1982 with a degree in computer science. "I didn't think I could ever become an FBI agent, so I never thought of it.”

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However, listening to the agent talk about criminal investigations and undercover work triggered Rivera’s interest in the law enforcement agency. She mentally checked all the boxes of basic requirements the agent listed for FBI applicants.

At 32, Rivera was between the ages of 23 and 37, a U.S. citizen, and had a bachelor’s degree and more than two years of work experience. A former gymnast and softball player, she was physically fit.

By the end of the agent’s presentation, Rivera knew she was the right woman for the job.

"It was destiny," said Rivera, who retired in 2014 after 23 years with the FBI. "God was saying, 'You can do it!' I never saw becoming a special agent as being way above me anymore. I was like, ‘I can do it.’"

After a lengthy process that included a polygraph test, an extensive background check, and 20 weeks of intensive training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, Rivera was sworn into the FBI as a special agent in 1991. Her husband, Roberto Rivera, also a UTEP alum, graduated from the academy the month before she did.

Back then, women made up 12% of FBI agents. Rivera said she was one of 80 Hispanic agents in the agency. Today 22% of special agents are women, and the FBI is working to increase that figure through recruitment events at colleges, middle schools, and high schools, said Special Agent Jeanette Harper, head of the Office of Public Affairs of the FBI's El Paso division.  

In 2022, the FBI celebrated 50 years of female special agents. Before 1972, only men were allowed into the FBI training academy. Since then, thousands of women have joined the bureau as special agents serving in every one of the FBI's 56 field offices, including the El Paso office.

Among the ranks are UTEP graduates whose education paved the way for them to serve their country, excel professionally, and inspire other women to follow in their footsteps.

"Women are just as capable as anybody else, male or female, out there," Harper said.  "We bring different tools and different perspectives to the job. We deserve a seat at the table, and we've earned our right from the women who have come before us, and we're only showing more of an impact that we have a rightful place at the FBI."

Determined to Succeed

Joining the FBI allowed FBI Supervisory Special Agent Aida Reyes to combine her passions: law enforcement and health care. 

Reyes earned a bachelor’s degree in health sciences from UTEP in 1996. While enrolled at UTEP, a hospital that she was familiar with came under investigation by the FBI for Medicare fraud. The work and temperament of the special agents investigating the matter piqued her interest in that career path.

After obtaining a Master of Business Administration in Healthcare Management and an extensive career in healthcare, Reyes joined the FBI in 2008. She started her career investigating health care fraud and financial crimes. Two years ago, Reyes relocated to El Paso to oversee a squad of FBI Special Agents responsible for investigating violent crimes against children and human trafficking. She had previously been a Supervisory Special Agent at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., overseeing the FBI’s Health Care Fraud programs nationwide.

Reyes acknowledged that as a woman in a male-dominated field, she has faced a few challenges. While at the FBI Quantico training academy, a male supervisor told her that she owed it to her son to drop out. Reyes saw things differently – she owed it to her son to succeed. Instead of the comment becoming a derailment, she was more determined than ever to achieve her personal goals.

"Women are excellent leaders, good workers, good investigators, and there's no reason why there shouldn't be more women special agents in FBI leadership roles," Reyes said. 

All Backgrounds Welcome

Rivera and Reyes credit their diverse professional backgrounds for helping them achieve successful careers.

During her 23-year FBI career, Rivera, a first-generation college graduate, investigated counterintelligence, counterterrorism and public corruption. She also served as the El Paso Division Joint Terrorism Task Force coordinator after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Although all backgrounds and skill sets are needed for FBI special agent positions, Special Agent Eliza Reyes thought she needed a law or criminal justice degree to get into the FBI until someone told her otherwise.

A 2015 graduate of UTEP’s Bachelor of Multidisciplinary Studies program, Eliza Reyes, who is not related to Aida Reyes, was a customs officer for five years before she joined the FBI in 2021.

A transnational organized crime investigator, Eliza Reyes said the psychology and sociology courses she took at UTEP and growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border have come in handy during her investigations.

"It's all mind games when it comes down to interviews and knowing if they're lying to you or not and taking some of those courses (at UTEP), and the courses they teach you at the academy, really helped," Eliza Reyes said.

In her experience, sources are likely to be more open with female investigators.

"As a woman, we give that nurturing kind of vibe," Eliza Reyes said. "We're here to hear you out, and I think that actually works sometimes in interviews. People feel comfortable with you."

So far, the toughest challenge Eliza Reyes has had to overcome was being away from her daughter for five months while she was at the FBI academy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of 50 trainees in her section, only 11 were women. She also was one of two Hispanics and the only mom in her section. 

“I remember I called my mom, and I told her to expect me in two weeks,” Eliza Reyes said with a laugh. “And then those two weeks became five weeks, and those five became 10.”

Instead, she took it one step at a time and day by day.

"We're always too busy worrying about tomorrow," Eliza Reyes said. "And I think what helped me get through was getting through today. But it was finally seeing that badge in my hand that I said, ‘I did it!’"

Last Updated on February 15, 2023 at 12:00 AM | Originally published February 15, 2023

By Laura L. Acosta UTEP Marketing and Communications