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Hannah Wilk (’22): An analyst with a mission to protect children

Hannah Wilk in Graduation Regalia

“Even if I left this job one day knowing that I helped only one child get out of a bad situation, it would be worth it.”
-Hannah Wilk (’22)

Hannah Wilk (’22) has helped rescue many children. She spends her days analyzing reports about child exploitation and sending them to law enforcement as a CyberTipline Analyst at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). With a B.S. in criminology from George Mason University and an M.A. in Statecraft and National Security Affairs from IWP, she feels well-equipped to do this work that she is passionate about.

In this interview, Hannah shares about her interests in criminology and national security, her academic pursuits, and her impactful work at NCMEC.

Please tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I was born and raised in a small but beautiful town in Connecticut and then made the move to Northern Virginia in 2015 where I began attending George Mason University to receive my bachelor’s degree in criminology, law, and society with a concentration in homeland security and a double minor in forensic psychology and intelligence analysis.

Once I graduated in 2019, I almost immediately began working full-time as an Investigative Analyst for a private government contracting company and attending IWP.

Now, I work full-time at my current job and have been adjusting to the first time in my life that I haven’t been a student!

Please tell us about your current work.

I work as a CyberTipline analyst in the Exploited Children’s Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The CyberTipline serves as the national clearinghouse for issues related to the online exploitation of children and receives reports from members of the public as well as electronic service providers. Once these reports are received, they are then processed and made available to the appropriate domestic or international law enforcement agency.

I feel that my current role allows me to seamlessly blend my backgrounds in criminology and national security and be a part of something every day that I am extremely passionate about.

What goes into processing these reports?

We have to determine the most time-sensitive reports to prioritize. We also determine what value needs to be added to those reports, whether it be prior information that is relevant, open-source information, or an assessment of whether the person involved is in a position of trust with children.

Where do the reports go? Do you get to see the results?

We deal a lot with the task forces for Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) throughout the U.S. We also have partnerships with international law enforcement agencies, and over 90% of our reports are international.

We occasionally hear back from law enforcement about the results of our work. We get excited when we hear a specific story about a child that has been safeguarded.

Hannah Wilk at IWP Commencement
Hannah at IWP Commencement in 2022

Is it difficult to work on such dark issues each day?

Being in criminology, and even in some of the topics we study at IWP, you feel as though there is a lot of bad that happens in the world. With this type of job, you have to become very analytical with the information to ensure that you catch all the details you need and figure out what you can draw from that information to ensure that you produce a thorough report.

It is hard to process sometimes, and different things hit people in different ways. We have great programs at our office to safeguard employees, including therapists, hope dogs, and especially the support of our peers.

How did you first become interested in law enforcement and national security?

I have always had an affinity for history, international affairs, true crime, and anything related to crisis management and response. None of those interests made any sense on their own, but now that I take a look back on the trajectory of my academic and professional career, each of those parts adds up to the whole of where I have ended up.

Learning about times when things have gone wrong throughout history and how they have been overcome or regarded as a lesson is fascinating to me and the pinnacle of what it means to study national security. I think that taking these interests into account drove me into an area of study where it is essential to evaluate cautionary tales from the past and analyze how to proceed with wisdom into the future with the goal of safeguarding the country and the international stage.

Did your time at George Mason influence your decision to attend IWP?

Being a student at George Mason University was integral in not only my decision to attend IWP, but also influenced me greatly to pursue a degree with a focus in Homeland Security and Intelligence.

I remember attending the new student orientation the spring before I started my degree and lingering at a booth for the newly introduced Intelligence Analysis program. George Mason has always been a university with a massive focus on innovation and the academic pursuit of emerging topics. I had never even heard of a school that had an intelligence program and was sold from the moment I learned about it.

Though I graduated with a degree in Criminology, every semester I leaned more and more into classes with topics such as writing and briefing in the intelligence community, counterintelligence, and theory and politics of terrorism that deepened my interest in national security and pushed me to explore a graduate program that highlighted similar areas of study.

Attending George Mason also connected me to IWP because I had a number of professors who spoke very highly of the programs offered, and I was able to talk to some current IWP students at a few of the career fairs on campus. Witnessing the personal passion that had begun to emerge regarding these topics, coupled with the expertise of the faculty, IWP seemed like a natural fit for my next steps postgrad.

 How did you know IWP would be the right fit for you?

I knew that IWP would be a great fit for me because, in addition to being located in the Washington D.C. area (the primary hub for all things government and security), it is a school with a very specific and unique area of study.

Though a number of universities and colleges emphasize government affairs and international relations, many fail to address the intricacies of the national security community, such as the interaction between the intelligence community and policymakers, the impact of geography on strategy in the event of warfare or diplomatic relations, or the various tools of political warfare that are constantly being implemented by each country’s leadership.

IWP opened my eyes to the details of this discipline that are often overlooked within the national security community and encouraged me to constantly challenge my own perceptions as I gathered more data. I believe it is a school that thrives on the diverse backgrounds of its students and the variety of perspectives that accompany that dynamic.

Hannah studying abroad during the IWP-Oxford program
Hannah studying abroad during the IWP-Oxford program

What was it like entering IWP with a criminology background?

Personally, I was worried that studying criminology would put me at a disadvantage as I did not have the introductions to government structures and international affairs that some of my peers did. However, I quickly noticed that my expertise lent itself to a deep interest in topics such as the psychology behind terrorist recruitment tactics or radicalism of individuals to online extremist groups that was enhanced by a background in studying criminal psychology in my undergraduate degree.

Furthermore, having the opportunity to take classes with individuals who had a range of experiences in the military, private sector, government, living internationally, and more, heightened academic discussions and opened my eyes to many different ways of thinking about these very important issues.

What have been the most interesting things you have studied at IWP?

My time at IWP was full of deep dives into topics I was familiar with and the introduction to so many concepts that were completely foreign to me, each course offering incredibly significant pieces of wisdom to inform my perspective.

One bit of advice that I heard during my new student orientation at IWP was that the school encouraged students to apply the topic of each class to their own particular area of focus throughout the program. Once I considered that more deeply, I realized that I would naturally always consider the lens of extremism and human fallacy throughout history.

It became clear to me that wherever national security risks arise, there is always some element of human error that can be studied. Especially in the modern day, I believe that it is much easier for radicalist principles to be promulgated through the use of the internet and social media communities.

One class that allowed me to apply this concept was Professor Aaron Danis’ “Violent Non-State Actors in Today’s Security Environment” course. We were asked to choose a violent non-state actor group and classify it within a framework that we had been studying. I chose to analyze the “Involuntary Celibate” (otherwise known as “Incel”) community that had formed through forums online and later led to a number of violent attacks in the United States and abroad. With so much of the world’s population interacting and socializing online in this day and age, I believe it will be more likely for national security risks to originate and thrive on online platforms. I am grateful to IWP and Professor Danis’ class for the opportunity to explore and publish on such a cutting-edge topic.

Hannah with IWP classmates during the IWP-Oxford Study Abroad Program
Hannah with IWP classmates during the IWP-Oxford Study Abroad Program

Please tell us a little about your experience studying abroad.

The highlight of my academic career was getting the opportunity to study abroad during the course of both my B.S. at GMU and M.A. at IWP. In undergrad, I attended Griffith University in Australia.

Later, IWP’s Oxford program really served as a culmination of my graduate school experience. It was the last semester I did at IWP in 2022, and it felt like a really exciting end to my program.

I had walked at IWP Commencement, and two days later, I was getting on the plane to go to the UK. I had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest tutors in the UK and share this experience with other IWP students.

During my time at Oxford, I studied the Online Enticement and Exploitation of Children. I spent time studying, drawing conclusions, learning how to argue effectively, and applying all this in an intensive session with my tutor each week, where we would delve deeply into these topics. I had gotten so many important lessons at IWP that I was able to employ at Oxford.

We also did extracurricular adventures, like attending the platinum jubilee with the queen, where we saw the royal family come out on the balcony. We also saw World War II planes that they took out of retirement for the event.

Have your studies at IWP impacted how you approach your profession?

My studies at IWP have impacted my approach to my current role because they have taught me to think critically when presented with a large set of information and to spot trends that can later inform decisions.

Being an analyst is all about observing incoming data and drawing conclusions based on reason. In my job, I work to triage reports and process them as efficiently as possible which sometimes requires putting pieces together to make sense of a situation. Being a master’s student at IWP provided me with a lot of experience in problem solving and pattern recognition that has helped me greatly in my profession.

Furthermore, in addition to the in-depth research that was conducted throughout my program, I gained a great deal of experience in presenting this information with confidence to my peers, professors, and members of the public. Learning how to not only absorb information but also present it in a compelling and effective way has translated into me being able to be an advocate for child safety through not only processing reports but also with presenting my job knowledge to colleagues, law enforcement, and members of the public.

What do you feel is the way that you have made the biggest impact so far in your career?

My current job has offered me the opportunity to genuinely feel as though I am making a difference on a daily basis. I am able to process each report knowing that it will likely aid in the safeguarding of a child, and that impact is felt daily.

Even if I were to only walk away from my time at NCMEC having helped one child be removed from ongoing exploitation, it would have been worth it to me.

I feel so fortunate to still be so early in my career but feel so fulfilled by my constant pursuit of job-related knowledge, interactions with other child safety professionals, and commitment to the mission of my organization.

I hope to continue to chase a career that makes me feel as though I am making a small difference in the world, and I feel so grateful for all the steps that have gotten me to this point so far.

Hannah Wilk at IWP
Hannah Wilk at IWP