USC

Tracy Walder’s journey from a USC Delta Gamma to the CIA

From USC to interrogating terrorists in the Middle East and Africa, Walder’s memoir reflects on her life and work.

Inside an otherwise ordinary classroom in a Dallas all-girls private school hangs an American flag listing all the victims from 9/11, an FBI hat, a split USC-UCLA flag, a hot pink swivel chair and a photo of a 20-something blonde woman holding a machine gun.

Each of these items represents a glimpse into the life of teacher Tracy Walder, whose remarkable journey took her from USC to the CIA and the FBI. From there, she went on to become a published author and the inspiration for a soon to be released television drama that will air on ABC.

Walder was my history teacher for two years at The Hockaday School, teaching courses in American history and comparative government and another in Spycraft, which she designed herself.

“I have no idea what y’all thought,” Walder said about the items in her room. “Probably that I was crazy! The pink chair, sparkle calculator, picture of me with the gun.”

But Walder is hardly crazy.

In fact, at just age 41, Walder has been able to accomplish more than most people do in a lifetime. By the time she was barely 25-years-old, she was part of CIA outposts in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Jordan, interrogating terrorists and keeping the United States apprised of potential threats.

Her memoir was picked up by producer Ellen Pompeo and is currently being developed by ABC into a television show, "The Sorority Girl Who Saved Your Life.”

But before her life took her overseas, Walder was at USC, majoring in history and a member of the Delta Gamma sorority. As a junior she came across a CIA recruiter at a USC career fair.

Walder handed in an application to the CIA not expecting anything to come of it. The application process was long and included vetting Walder’s personal life, which meant that a recruiter came into her sorority house and interviewed some of Walder’s friends. One day, Walder was in her sorority house when she heard a sister yell, “Who is getting mail from the CIA?”

Not wanting to draw attention to herself, Walder quietly took her mail to her room and opened the letter which said she had been admitted to the CIA.

Immediately after graduating in 2000, Walder began working at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA at the age of 21. In her first year of work, she would face challenges no one could have expected.

Walder was working in the counter-terrorism department of the CIA when the planes struck the towers. Her job description was to make sure nothing like this ever happened on American soil. To this day, Walder feels personally responsible for the loss of lives on 9/11.

“The plane might as well have crashed into the south side of my body,” Walder wrote in her memoir, “The Unexpected Spy.”

“The pain, the guilt, the sense that my failures were resulting in lives lost… erased all other thoughts,” Walder wrote.

That’s why she keeps a flag naming all the victims in her room.

At the CIA, Walder quickly climbed the ranks and soon found herself an operative – in locales as diverse as Afghanistan, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Algeria, Morocco, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and England.

The nature of her job forbade her from sharing many things about her life with her family. While overseas, she could only communicate with her parents through rare phone calls.

“We knew to respect the boundary,” Walder’s mom, Judy Schandler, said. “And we would know what she wanted us to know, and we never asked more questions about it because she could only tell us what she could tell us.”

At The Hockaday School, Walder was a role model for students wanting to work in male-dominated fields, but in her own life, she experienced the harsh realities of sexism.

Walder applied to the FBI in June, 2005 on what she describes as “a whim.” She was accepted and immediately returned home to begin basic training.

At the FBI, Walder was unnecessarily singled out during training by many of her cohorts and even the training instructor. Unlike the CIA which had an even gender distribution, Walder said the only 20% of the FBI field agents were female.

“The only way that's gonna change is to get more females in those positions because men almost have to be forced to act better,” Walder said.

Walder grew frustrated at the FBI and quit.

Walder applied and was accepted for an open position at Hockaday. In Texas, she settled down to start her family with her husband, a UCLA alum, hence the USC-UCLA flag that hangs in her classroom.

Walder quickly became one of the student’s favorite teachers.

“She’s definitely not the lecture-type where she just like reads off of a PowerPoint and tells you to take notes,” current senior Sarah Beth Walton said. “When we got more to modern history, she would bring in a lot of her own experiences or the ones she could tell us about.”

As a teacher, Walder made sure we knew her door was always open if we wanted to talk. I would hang out in Walder’s room after lunch and ask her questions about current events or her past with the CIA to which she would most certainly respond “Oh, y’all don’t want to hear about that.” Walder was a constant advocate for her students, a reason many of us were comfortable sharing details of our personal lives with her.

The night of the 2016 election, Walder was part of an email chain consisting of hundreds of emails from a few of her students who were expressing their feelings about the results. Walder’s frustration boiled over when she pulled into the school parking lot the next day. Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton felt personal to this feminist, all-girls school in the middle of Texas.

“I remember parking my car, putting my hands on the wheel and just crying and thinking, ‘This is harder than being at the CIA after September 11,” Walder said. "Having to go into an all-girls school with all these disappointed girls and then looking at my daughter in the backseat."

It took Donald Trump’s election for her to decide to start writing. Her first article was titled “The Single Greatest Threat To Our National Security Is Donald Trump.”

“I felt like I needed to,” Walder said. “When someone talking about how you can ‘grab women by the pussy’ becomes president and the way he was talking about the CIA … [that] was really irritating to me.”

She found the courage to make a stand and made a difference. “The Unexpected Spy,” her memoir co-authored with Jessica Anya Blau, released on Feb. 25 is a 245-page tale of a woman whose mission was to help make America great before Donald Trump repurposed the phrase for his campaign.

“I don’t personally find myself influential,” Walder said. “But what I have come to find...is that there really have not been any women [in the CIA and FBI]. There’s so far no woman who has served on the operation side of both the CIA and the FBI. And I don’t think I realized that that was remarkable.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated “That’s she keeps a flag naming all the victims in her room.” It should state, “That’s why she keeps a flag naming all the victims in her room.”