Orlando native Julia Pierson has never been afraid to try new things and dream big, which is why none of her friends or family were surprised earlier this year when she became the first female director of the U.S. Secret Service.
For her achievements and for bringing international acclaim to her alma mater, Pierson received the Michelle Akers Alumni Award on Thursday night. The UCF Alumni Association gives the award when someone’s achievements warrant the recognition. It is named for Akers, a former UCF soccer player who went on to become one of the most recognized soccer players in the world.
Pierson accepted the honor during UCF’s Black and Gold Gala while family members watched from the audience.
“I am humbled by this recognition,” Pierson said. “Michelle Akers is an incredible athlete, role model, and a dedicated advocate for UCF. It means a lot to me to be recognized by my alma mater for my professional success.”
Pierson earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at UCF in 1981 and went on to police work in Central Florida. She then began a 30-year career with the Secret Service. Among her first roles was that of assistant special agent in charge in the Tampa Field Office. She was responsible for directing Secret Service investigative and protective activities in western Florida. Pierson established an Financial Crimes Task Force to investigate financial crimes in the Tampa Bay area.
Since then she’s held the title of deputy assistant director in the Office of Protective Operations, where she was responsible for daily security operations, workforce readiness and strategic planning to support the Presidential and Vice Presidential Protective Divisions, Dignitary Protective Division, as well as National Special Security Events and Presidential Campaign activities. She also served as the deputy assistant director in the Office of Administration, where she oversaw the agency’s budget and all administrative operations, including strategic planning, budgeting, finance, procurement, and property management activities. As chief of staff in 2008, her responsibilities included overseeing the Secret Service’s complex information technology and business process modernization efforts.
In March she was named director of the Secret Service, crediting everyone she met along her path who helped her, from families and friends to professors at UCF and colleagues in law enforcement and at the Secret Service.
Standing: Director Julia Pierson, Rep. John Mica, Pierson’s aunt Joan Zeller and Patricia Mica. Sitting Ruth Pierson, the director’s mother.
“Each of us has families, friends, coworkers, and or teachers that have helped to guide, support and encourage us along the way,” Pierson said.
She recognizes that as the first female director, a lot of people look up to her. Her words of advice:
“Do not be afraid to try something new, different, or challenging as a career,” she said. “If it is right for you, your family, friends, and co-workers will help you to succeed. If it is not the right fit you will know, and other opportunities will present themselves. Search for the work that makes you happy and let life unfold before you.”
At the same time, she said the journey will not necessarily be easy. That’s why finding the right fit is very important.
“I encourage everyone to pursue a career doing something they really enjoy and that brings fulfillment to their lives,” she said. “The right career choice is going to be different for everyone. I found a unique opportunity within the Secret Service to combine my interests in federal law enforcement, history, and world travel into a single career. As a special agent I recognized the commitment I was making, and challenges I would face as a woman. Throughout my career, I have made many decisions that have both positively and negatively influenced my personal life. Through it all, I have grown as a person, developed new skills, and met great people around the world.”
So what’s next for this Knight?
For now, Pierson said she will focus on being the 23rd director of the agency.
“I will have the honor of leading the Secret Service during the planning of its 150th anniversary celebration,” she said. “I am looking forward to highlighting the achievements and dedication of the men and women who have preceded me in this organization.”