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Culinary Schools


haide
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Haide, while I think this thread, and the contributions so far, have been heartfelt, well-meaning and full of much good advice, I'm not necessarily going to be as supportive as most. And that's not because I'm just mean, bitter or cranky, though at times I can be. If you take one post on this thread so far to heart, take the post by snoop to heart. I agree with every single word and the tone of it, in fact, I feel that's one of the best posts we've had on eGullet in a long while. Get inside every word, every aspect of that post, and let it churn around inside you. It should make you uncomfortable.

It's nice to be hopeful, to embrace the frisson inherent in a new challenge, a career change, but it is more important that your hopefulness be an informed hopefulness. And to be able to justify to yourself embracing a career change, I'd recommend you make it from an informed position. So I support all those on this thread, snoop most definitely so, urging you to get into a kitchen any way you can and experience it before enrolling fulltime in school and incurring the expense of that school.

Here are some alternate realities to consider and or discuss:

No matter if or where you go to culinary school, your real education is going to begin with your externships and then your jobs after school and usually this will occur in a restaurant or hotel kitchen. In fact, most schools just feed you into the restaurant or hotel or foodservice production rat race. So expect it. Yes there are allied professional opportunities for culinary school grads but these are the exception--so is succeeding and making any name or money for yourself in these allied food professions. Who are best chefs or the most famous chefs you know, those idols or heroes possibly enticing you to enter the field--and how many of them made their name by leveraging their relationship to their restaurant, or had their identities defined by the media in connection to their restaurant? Most if not all.

Before you lend credence to the allied food professional route to the kind of critical, personal and financial success you might be dreaming of--investigate just who has succeeded by going this route--and ask yourself whether these are the exceptions or the rule and will this route be any more or less likely for you than having to make it in a restaurant or hotel or bakery first.

Assess how sane the notion of borrowing money to finance culinary school is. This has to be given serious consideration. Yes, the money may be out there for you to borrow but how do you think you're ever going to pay it back on what a cook makes? Cooks are grunts. You're likely going to be a grunt for a long time, you're going to be a valued, vital warrior but an underpaid grunt with few benefits. How you going to bankroll a startup if you're still in tuition debt? So begin thinking longer term and thinking about your support network. Yes you'll continue learning, if you are lucky to work with good people, yes you might land a job at a hot place with a hot chef that you can use to leverage your way into a better career arc, but you're not necessarily going to make enough to live let alone pay back your loans, especially if you are still paying back your real college student loans. Top places don't pay--in fact, many top places pay less because they know you're resume-padding off the cachet and rep of the chef. More than likely you will be underpaid, under-appreciated, and under-fulfilled for years and years, if you are lucky to last that long, until you find your niche and/or set yourself up in an ownership situation.

Or until you figure out how to channel your passion--and yes, you most definitely have to have passion for this.

The likelihood is after you graduate and incur all this debt you'll be competing side by side with cooks who never went to culinary school, don't speak English as well as you do, are supporting three kids, cook somewhere else on their day off, who are very very grateful for the opportunity to earn whatever they are being paid, and in any event are better and faster than you anyway. I don't want to rain on Pastramionrye's parade when he says "and after 6 months at l'academie you will be in the field working at a top notch restaurant...just think where you will be in 2 years, as opposed to tthe other schools where you will still be in classroom work?" Well, where he'll likely be is competing against the previous two and next two years of L'Academie graduates still hanging around town because L'Academie doesn't have national cachet or a national network, not to mention competing with the glut of all the other cooking school grads bouncing around town, hopefully learning, not making much, filling all the forgotten line positions around town like faceless interchangeable puzzle pieces. The lucky ones--the rare exceptions--who work hard and have some talent--might impress a mentor enough to take them and only them under their wing and help propel their career along. Hopefully this will happen for pastramionrye at Palena. The odds, however, are against him long term as they are against each and every cooking school grad. This industry can be incredibly fulfilling, but it also has a tendency to eat its own.

You think Chinese kitchens are sexist and anti-woman? You don't see many women in any kitchen, be it the French Laundry, elite four-star French places, or chain restaurants. And if you do, it's more likely women are slotted into salads, pantry, cold station or pastry. It's the rare chef and kitchen that is truly gender-blind. You ready to be slotted?

No, you're not. I guess, all this leads up to is you're 23, you're a wide-eyed speculative kid. Everyone conquers fear in their own way--so, too, will you. You are not too old. You don't need to speak French and you certainly don't need to go to cooking school in France, though for some that might be the best option. But the only way you can get ready to make this decision, to make an informed decision about pursuing your dream, is to first get yourself into a kitchen and start to experience what it is really like for yourself. Only then can you begin to answer Holly when he writes "Are you willing to endure the hours, physical and mental hardships to pursue the restaurant businesses. The horror stories are probably partially true in many restaurants, untrue or true in others. But it is hard work. It has to be something that deep, deep down you are driven towards." And as Bux says, there are many, many alternatives, especially for stubborn self-starters.

So put off the school decision for a while. Once you've been in a kitchen or two, once you've begun to see the scene and see some of what your eventual reality might be like, your unique decision and your unique issues will be a lot more in focus. And read the thread nightscotsman linked to, paying particular attention to the posts and self-reflection by Michael Laiskonis, one of the best pastry chefs in the country. If he could do it all over again, he'd give serious thought to taking some tuition money and instead eating his way around the best restaurants in Spain and France. My wife and I, both pastry chefs as well, would probably recommend much the same thing. But only once you realize you are serious about food and you won't realize that until you get hooked in a real kitchen environment. That thread is one of the ones I'm most proud of on eGullet--and you won't find near the depth of talent and voice on display on that thread anywhere else.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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'nuff said.

let that roll around in your head for a while.

let it run around in your brain for that last hour

before you fall asleep every night.

then make that choice. yea or nay?

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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Haide,

As I read through all these posts I felt I just HAD to respond. Yes, Snoop and Steve are both right; being a woman in a restaurant envronment can be personally taxing at best. Especially if you're the woman and you're "IN CHARGE". Some men and even other women will go to any lengths to undermine your position and authority, even as they smile to your face. And getting to a place where you are that woman in charge has it's daunting moments. Can you "bark with the big dogs" while still retaining your "female" qualities? It's quite a juggling act. Are you aggressive enough? Man enough?

It's a strange mix of excitement and tediousness, anxiety and pride, tears and laughter, failures and successes. And most of the time, the dedication goes unnoticed and unrewarded. I've always said "Good work is always rewarded with...more work". Make sure you know what it is you're getting into before you do it.

When you do, don't choose a school because it simply has a big name. Go visit. Talk to students away from their instructors, and ask instructors questions that require them to let you know how they truly feel about their students. Is it a high-production "get-em-out-the-door" kind of place that has a graduation every month, where instructors can hardly get to know the students' names before they're gone? Is it a place where students have the time and opportunity to truly explore what it is they will supposedly be doing for the rest of their lives, or are they simply going through the motions? You know, it's a lot like restaurants...for every big-ticket, famous name chef, there are many hundreds of working grunts (great word, Steve) who work every bit as hard, many of whom are very talented...it's the same with smaller and less-recognized schools. And they are generally a good deal financially. All of them will teach you the same basics - that's why they call them basics. Go for a management option if you can.

Anyway, it's certainly your life - but think long and hard about it. Long and hard, and then think some more.

Good luck!

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The National Restaurant association, and the restaurant association of your state, whatever it may be, has ungodly amounts of money that they have nothing to do with. Maybe not ungodly, but enough. You can get a 2500 dollar scholarship with relatively little effort. In many cases, that'll tackle your knives, coats, books, and parking, maybe a class here and there.

It can be an expense. Research everything that you HAVE to buy, and then scratch your head for a while, consider it again, and invest. Alot of these things are long term investments: Knives, Cookbooks, etc. Choose them with care.

For those of you who are older than about 25 or so, do not get frustrated with the different clip that the class is taking. I was in school with a few women who were in their early thirties all the way up to around 40something, and they added a great dimension to our class. They were different, though. What you can learn from younger students is not to sweat the small stuff. What they can learn from you is work ethic. You have it. Most people don't. They'll plug away, but only because the instructor told them to. Get them to empower themselves and encourage them to keep the passion level high, bullshit level low. Drop the egos and absorb as much as you can. For those in culinary school, this is your only time to be free to experiment with these things. Share what you learn, help eachother, and don't bump heads if you can help it.

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I'd like to add to the idea about going to a hospitality management program rather than a cooking school. I got my MFA in creative writing at Florida International University in North Miami, which is also the home of what is supposed to be one of the best hospitality management programs in the country. For five years after my graduation, I taught writing there, and so have a lot of experience with the HM students.

I was almost always impressed by them-- they were generally terrific students, very nice people (going into a very people-intensive business) and they came from all over the world. For example, there's a 2-year hospitality college in Curacao, and we got many students from there finishing their last two years. Also lots of Chinese students because (as I was told) China has no tradition of hospitality toward strangers-- they built a wall to keep people out, but now recognize that they need to improve the quality of their hospitality management.

I know that they took cooking classes, but also courses in mass feeding, club management, etc. So if you are looking for a way into this field but discover that you don't want to be in the kitchen, a program like FIU or Cornell might be good. As far as money goes, FIU is pretty cheap, as a state university, particularly if you can be here for a year or so before hand in order to qualify for in-state tuition.

Neil

Edited by plax (log)

Author of the Mahu series of mystery novels set in Hawaii.

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You think Chinese kitchens are sexist and anti-woman? You don't see many women in any kitchen, be it the French Laundry, elite four-star French places, or chain restaurants. And if you do, it's more likely women are slotted into salads, pantry, cold station or pastry. It's the rare chef and kitchen that is truly gender-blind. You ready to be slotted?

With all due respect to Steve Klc, he's full of shit. I have worked in kitchens where I was the only woman, or the only woman LEFT, or the ONLY cook of whatever gender -- and I worked in a kitchen where the exec, both sous, the pastry, and half the line AND prep were women. And other situations in between. I also quit one job where even though I had 5 years of experience on the line, I was offered a position BELOW garde manger -- while I saw guys with minimal or no experience right out of school working the hot line. (I took it because I was desperate for a job, and really liked the chef's food; but my first night I came to my senses.)

Of course no chef is "truly gender-blind" -- at least, not until they learn the capabilities of their cooks. Some never get it; some do manage to get beyond noticing only the obvious differences of physique and ACT LIKE THE MANAGERS THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BE. And you know what? We, male and female both, can help the ones on the cusp to get over learned culture of the type Klc describes. This should not be a female against male battle; it should be one of "I can do the work you want done, the way you want it done; can the other person?"

And Steve, if you want to challenge why I'm not in restaurant kitchens anymore: it's because I know my physical limitations -- can't get up after crouching down to get something out of the bottom back of the lowboy -- NOT because I'm tired of fighting discrimination. I didn't have to fight it; all I had to do was show the chef what I could do.

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Suzanne,

Steve has a half point. The heirarchy of most kitchens are male, and discrimination does exist, albeit on a circuit that top chefs more often unconsciously promote men over women.

There aren't as many women sous chefs out there based on this, and it's sad. It's partially because of physical and mental limitations, being that most women in professional kitchens are smarter and more internally organized than men and know/respect when their bodies are telling them that manual labor is not a risk worth taking.

You know chefs. Quick thinkers, not always willing to eat their words. I understand what Steve was trying to say, but perhaps it needed to have a bit of the edge taken off.

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I'm a few years older than you are, and I'm in my 3rd month of restaurant work after 7 years in an advertising agency. For about 1 month I was quitting every day. I was positive it wasn't for me. Then one day I ruined a bunch of desserts on a party, got yelled at for it. I moped around the kitchen for a few hours as the rest of them proceeded to tell stories of their screw ups at their other jobs. They were all laughing about it and I realized, everyone goes through the same thing.

It is very difficult. I work no less than 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. There is certainly no mincing of words, and they will make fun of you for fun basically. If you don't show you are annoyed, and even have a little ability to give it back, you'll be ok. Also, once you receive your first kitchen "wound" you'll oddly earn a little more respect, especially if you manage to work through the pain. They are strange people...

I find myself standing over a cutting board, chopping, cutting and slicing the same items every day, and realize that I am smiling for no reason. It was a great thing to do and I'm happy I did it. There are days you won't understand why you switched careers, and others where you won't believe you waited as long as you did.

As for cooking school, I believe that I managed to learn more working in 3 months than I did in school. It's great to know the 100 year old techniques for French sauces, but you'll probably find you won't need to make those ever. I think you should try to get a job and see how it goes for a while. It's the best experience you can ask for.

Good luck.

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Thanks awbrig. What's funny is my wife pushed me into it. After 4 years she was probably sick of listening to me talk about food 24 hours a day. The corporate life just wasn't for me, I couldn't stand the politics. I like the "bonding" that goes on in the kitchen. It is a very rough life style that I find fun for some reason. And it can be very rewarding to see a waiter bring a plate back into the kitchen that I prepared that is completely empty, I love that site.

I'd better get some sleep, I have to go back in 8 hours.

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Steve has a half point. The heirarchy of most kitchens are male, and discrimination does exist, albeit on a circuit that top chefs more often unconsciously promote men over women.

There aren't as many women sous chefs out there based on this, and it's sad. It's partially because of physical and mental limitations, being that most women in professional kitchens are smarter and more internally organized than men and know/respect when their bodies are telling them that manual labor is not a risk worth taking.

Oh, I don't deny that there's plenty of discrimination. But I disagree that any top chef "unconsciously" promotes anyone -- because then that chef is NOT being a good manager. FYI: When I did my externship at Le Bernardin, which followed a fairly classical brigade system, the tournant and saucier were both women; pastry was all men; I was initially put to work with the garde manger, but soon got to work with all the stations, sometimes directly with the chef de cuisine.

I don't quite understand what you mean by "physical and mental limitations." Whose? When I had to, I would heft 50# sacks of flour and crates of potatoes. But yes, I knew enough to ask for help when moving a full stock pot. And I've worked with guys who fell apart when they cut themselves, and both men and women who never had their complete mise ready because they could never develop a system for themselves.

As for being "smarter and more internally organized" -- well, I question that women who work in kitchens are in general more intelligent than men who do. But we have to WORK SMARTER because we have to work MORE, to prove ourselves.

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And Steve, if you want to challenge why I'm not in restaurant kitchens anymore: it's because I know my physical limitations -- can't get up after crouching down to get something out of the bottom back of the lowboy -- NOT because I'm tired of fighting discrimination.  I didn't have to fight it; all I had to do was show the chef what I could do.

That's also where the discrimination comes from. I know a woman who complained about the sexist attitude from the day she started staging at a four star French restaurant in NYC until the day she started making comments such as, "Another woman came in to stage today. I wonder if she'll last the week." Unfortunately most of the women entering didn't have the stamina or the raw determination required. For all that, the last time I looked, that kitchen has been increasingly hiring female cooks.

By the way, in suggesting one consider working rather than studying, I'm not denigrating the value of classes or formal training. As in any profession the person under whom you study or work, may be more important than whether it's a classroom or working kitchen. It's also my personal view that any education will be greatly influenced by the the people around you. The value of any school is enhanced by the caliber of the students around you. The same is true of a real kitchen. If the cooks there are excited by their work, you will learn more than if it's just a job to them. It stands to reason that great students follow great men in their filed of interest be in an academic college, culinary school or restaurant, but there's not always a direct correlation.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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  • 4 years later...

I'm only 16 and am just starting to get involved in the food industry. I do have high asparations though, and plan to pursue a career as a chef. I have asked many people i know personally the dreaded question to which there is no clear answer, "Should i spend 2 to 4 years in a culinary school (like the CIA or NECI) or is my time better spent in restaurants?". I've heard both sides argued quite well on this matter. But seeing as potentially my entire future could ride on this decision, i wanted to open it up to a broader audience of "foodies". I still have 2 years of high school left before i have to decide about college. Any opinions would be well appreciated.

-Harry

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Work a plethora of jobs (both front and back of the house) washing dishes, bussing tables, prep cook, anything you can get and work hard, don't complain, move up the ladder, to line cook and then make a desision when you graduate.

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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What alchemist said, and this.

I was in the industry for years and years before I went to school. Within a week of culinary school, I realized how much I still needed to learn.

Going back to school won't make you a cook. It won't hand you the focus, ability to do six things at once in a hot kitchen while being screamed at (often by someone who has no idea what s/he is talking about), and it won't give you the tremendous sense of satisfaction when it all comes together. That is from practice and from what's inside yourself, and there's no better way to find out if you have it, than to do it for a while. But if you want to take it up another level, formal instruction is essential, in my opinion, especially now.

I went to the CIA. I could have done without most of the post-Externship teachings. But that first year was phenomenal.

"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office
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Here in Vermont there are a number of high schools which offer vocational or tech-prep courses as part of the last year and these students complete a certificate program at the New England Culinary Institute as part of that. It's one way to experience culinary school without commiting to it completely. As far as education versus life experience you'll really have to decide what you want to down the road. Do you want to eventually manage people, do you want to be more than a line cook at some place like the Ritz, do you want to become an educator yourself? All of these require some amount of post secondary education be it liberal arts college or culinary school.

Bryan C. Andregg

"Give us an old, black man singing the blues and some beer. I'll provide the BBQ."

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There are some culinary schools that require you to work a certain amount of months before you can apply or start classes. I went to school at Le Cordon Bleu and I can surely say that for me, learning the actual food science was worth the money alone. It's not just important to know how to do something, but also why certain things work and the actual names of techniques.

I started my culinary career when I was a teenager as a dishwasher and cleaning bathrooms. Eventually, I was able to actually work my way to the line and actually cooking. Although the real world experience was great, culinary school tied up all of the loose ends. Choose carefully where you decide to go to school. Have a plan and work it throughout your training. That way, you set yourself up for success while in school and afterwards. Good luck!

At the end of the day, it's all about good food!

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And don't limit yourself to restaurants. I own a specialty food store, and we have an intern through the ProStart program. He's able to share his knowledge and experiences with us, and we consciously make sure he is exposed to things that we don't think he'll get in culinary school. Right now we have him learning our Chinese Teas. We've spent a lot of time on artisinal cheeses, chocolates...we'll keep working through the inventory so that when he starts having control in the kitchen, our hope is he'll choose not to rely on Sysco or the other typical distributors.

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First get a job in the industry while you are in high school. I can't tell you how many kids were in my class at culinary school that had no idea what they were getting into. Most of them had courses that were suppose to prepare them durng their high school years, but they had no real experience, and soon a lot of them failed or just gave up. I suggest working in the best restaurant in your area that will hire you doing what ever they will hire you to do. Work hard and quiet and don't forget to watch the chefs and try to learn as much as you can.

When you are finished with high school, if you still want to be in the industry, you should go to culinary school. The food industry has become very competitive and you pretty much need a degree to get a well paying job these days. Culinary school will give you the foundation that you need to be successful in this fast paced, ever evolving industry.

That being said, there are many very good schools out there. It is important to remember a few things when choosing which school. One is the financial responsibility. I hope that it is not an issue for you, but for a lot of people fresh out of culinary school there is a big shock coming to them. They realize that they are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and are making a shit salary. I was lucky to not have this problem, but I have worked with a lot of chefs who have refinanced their student loans two or three times, and are expecting to be paying those loans of until they are sixty. One way to avoid this is to apply for as many scholarships as possible. It is time consuming and dissapointing when you get rejected, but trust me it can really pay off.

Another thing is that no matter what school you choose, "you get out of it what you put into it". You can choose to ,just get by or you can take the ball and run. When you are in school ask questions, and study hard. You might think that what they are teaching you is not that important, but it is all important. And ten years down the line when you are interviewing for the Exec. Chef job of your dreams they won't give a damn which school you went to, as long as you went and finished.

Finally I truly believe it is most important what you do the five years after school. When there is a opportunity to do an externship in Europe, fight for that chance. If you look at the most successful chefs in the country, they all have worked in Europe at some point. Next, work with the best, to become the best. When you are young is the best time to suffer the abuse and long hours that a Five Star, Five Diamond, Three Star restaurant demands. Lastly, teach yourself. Read eveything food related and never lose site of your goals.

Good Luck!

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I would encourage you to keep your mind open to the possibility of working in restaurants for a couple of years beyond high school, and then going to culinary school. You would want to check into whether doing that would affect scholarships or grants, though.

For some people, there is much to be gained in waiting a couple of years. It would allow you to get more of a glimpse of the 'real world' before committing to such an expensive program. Maybe you could even pick up a few college hours during that time. I would think, also, that it wouldn't hurt to get the CIA textbooks (or those of another cooking school) and work your way through them, so that when the concepts are presented to you at cooking school, you're not hearing the information for the first time. If you go into cooking school, it would be handy to know things like where each cut of meat comes from, what the 'mother' sauces are, etc. Some recent cooking school graduates, or current students, could probably give you a whole "things I wish I'd known" list.

Edited by jgm (log)
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Here's an idea for you. Since you have two years for mise en place, why not get your hands on some culinary school books and fine dining cookbooks and stuff your fertile little brain with all the theory and science it can hold. Study potatoes and eggs and beef and fish and things like that. Pronunciation of some terms might be a factor but you'll pick it up eventually.

Umm, this is a thought to add the pot of thoughts ^^^

Network network network network

Find a master chef in your area and talk to him.

Wash dishes & stuff for sure, work boh foh, but then stage at the top places in your area.

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  • 1 month later...

I recently read about a Dual Degree program that Cornell and the CIA have together. Basically you complete 2 years for an AOS from the CIA, and then do 4 years at Cornell to get a BOS in Hotel Management.

Now one could also attend CIA for 4 years and obtain a BOS as well.

I was wondering if anyone had any comments about the difference between the level of education in restaurant management between Cornell and CIA. Anyone reccomend 1 over the other?

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First off the degree for Cornell is huge and several of my class mates were going on from the CIA to Cornell for that degree. As far as Culinary degree the CIA is Ivy League as well as NECI, JW and FCI. So to say that the CIA is not Ivy League for what they do is nuts. Also the program is a co-op between cornell and the cia - call the adm office and they can send you info on that program.

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