Chief Carla L. Provost Profile
Carla L. Provost was born in Burlingame, Kansas 48 years ago. With a population that hovers somewhere just shy of 1,000 people, Burlingame is the quintessential small farming town, where the local high school’s graduating class might be three dozen people, most of whom have known each other since Kindergarten.
Growing up in Burlingame was somewhat akin to living in a Norman Rockwell illustration. “We did everything outdoors,” Provost remembers. “We rode bikes, we went to the swimming pool, and we learned how to fish and ride horses. Everyone knew everybody else.” It was an innocent time, when children just had to be home by dark or dinner – whichever came first.
Burlingame began in the early 19th century as a coal-mining town called Council City, situated where the old Santa Fe Trail intersects with the Santa Fe Railroad in Osage County. Provost’s grandfather was a miner. Her father, Max, worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, which then became Burlington Northern Santa Fe, before he retired a few years ago. Provost’s mother, Faye, was a paralegal for a local law firm for decades before passing away in May 2017 from Alzheimer’s disease.
“The main street of Burlingame is two and a half blocks long. The law firm where my mom worked is still there. But a lot of the other local businesses – the hardware stores, groceries, pharmacies – are gone now,” Provost says sadly.
The “baby” of the family, Provost has two siblings. Craig is six years older, works in construction, and lived in Oklahoma until their mother’s illness prompted his return; today he lives just down the street from their father. Cathy Francis is four years older and works in the technology industry in Austin, Texas.
“My earliest memories were of my brother pounding on me because he didn’t have a younger brother,” Provost recalls with a laugh. However, she is quick to add that her parents were careful not to treat her or her sister any differently than her brother.
A strong sense of right and wrong, coupled with a deep respect for both law enforcement and our nation’s military, is reflected in her preference for the three original Star Wars movies, which were all released before she hit her teens.
In the Provost household, hard work, tenacity, and accountability were important values. “We were taught that each of us could do anything we wanted,” Provost says. “No matter if it is sports or grades, you do the absolute best you can possibly do, no matter what you do.”
That prevailing attitude has shaped and guided Provost in virtually every aspect of her life.
As a result, she became a top student and a star athlete: track and cross-country; basketball; softball; volleyball. As for academics, Provost notes that while her sister was high school valedictorian, she herself was in the top three or four of her class.
Scouted by many small Kansas and Missouri colleges for basketball and cross-country, Provost left Burlingame for Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas where her sister was already studying marketing and management. Although she had never rowed before, she joined the crew team and spent her freshman year contemplating a business major. “I majored in business because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “I had always thought about teaching and coaching, but when I found out that KSU had a sociology/criminal justice major, I switched t in my sophomore year.”
Provost appreciated the focus on people in the psychology and sociology courses she took, and she relished the criminal justice curriculum. “I don’t come from a law enforcement background, but I do come from a pride-in-country and service-to-country background,” she says. She returns to Burlingame every year for the annual July 4th festivities. “That’s really important to me. It’s about taking pride in our country and it’s that sense of family and community that’s still strong there,” she says.
Small-Town Girl, Big Plans
During her senior year of college, Provost had an internship with the Topeka Police Department. “One of my parents’ friends was the head homicide detective there, so I got to see a lot more than most interns do,” she remembers. After graduation in 1992, Provost stayed near KSU, signing on to the Riley County Police Department.
However, as much as she loved the job, Provost set her sights on a federal career.
The detective in Topeka had introduced her to a U.S. Marshal, and that prompted Provost to consider a career beyond municipal police work. “You know, when you’re in your early 20s, you think that the sexy jobs are the FBI, the DEA, the U.S. Marshals. So I was going through the hiring process with the Marshals, and I was still working at the police department, loving my work but living paycheck to paycheck.”
Her plans took a detour when the U.S. Marshals announced a hiring freeze. “A friend of mine told me that the U.S. Border Patrol was hiring. I had never even heard of the Border Patrol; I grew up about as far as one could get from the border – literally in the middle of the country.”
All that was about to change.
“I thought, well, it’s a federal job so maybe I can get my foot in the door and ultimately move on to what I considered back then to be bigger and better things like the FBI or the DEA,” she recalls.
Therefore, Provost applied. However, she was rejected. “I took the exam, and I scored somewhere in the 80s,” Provost remembers. “I got a rejection letter. Two or three weeks later, I got the same letter. Two or three weeks after that, I got the same rejection letter!” Then, in December of 1994, Provost received a phone call. “There was a hiring push, so they went further down in the scores to recruit, and so now they wanted me,” Provost laughs. But she had to let them know within a week, because there was a new class forming at the Border Patrol Academy.
Because of her college degree and her law enforcement experience, Provost was offered a GS-7 position in Douglas, Arizona. “At the risk of dating myself, I got out my Rand-McNally map and looked up Douglas. I found Tucson, and it looked like Douglas was really close. Let me tell you, it’s not.”
Thinking she’d be living in or near a major city, Provost was excited to open this new chapter of her career, and she entered on duty on January 8, 1995.
After her orientation in Tucson, they put her on a bus normally used to transport illegal aliens to the border for repatriation into Mexico. The bus traveled two hours to the then-dilapidated Border Patrol Station in Douglas, where Provost had a “Dorothy” moment: she wasn’t in Kansas anymore, much less Tucson.
“I remember stepping off the bus and thinking to myself, well, technically I’m still on annual leave with the police department ….” Provost chuckles. “But I stayed. I went to the Academy and then back to Douglas in May of 1995 and after a year on the ground there I swore I would never leave the Border Patrol. I ended up spending 11 ½ years in Douglas. Maybe not a prime location, but the work is amazing.” It didn’t hurt that she became a devotee of Mexican food.
Wearing the Green
“I absolutely fell in love with the job and the people,” Provost says. “If you’re a go-getter, the work is there.” In fact, the work was there. As the U.S. Border Patrol reinforced barriers to the west in the San Diego area, many illegal immigration patterns shifted to the Arizona border.
Within a year, Provost was on a bicycle. “Bike patrol was incredible. I was getting paid to go chase down drugs, chase down smugglers and other bad guys, ride a bike and get exercise every day and stay in shape … and it was fun,” she says.
Another aspect of the Border Patrol that appealed to her small-town sensibilities was the camaraderie forged among agents. “That’s the best thing about BP. It’s a second family, and we come through for each other,” she says, noting that the general public does not always recognize or understand the pressures that agents and their families face.
“They’re working long hours, often by themselves, day and night. They’re out in the desert and they can come across armed smugglers at any given time, without backup, 20 minutes or more away from any assistance. We’ve lost 127 Border Patrol agents in the line of duty, protecting this country.” The risks to Border Patrol agents have increased as smugglers grow more desperate.
“It takes a special kind of person to do that and to put themselves at risk in that type of scenario,” Provost says.
She should know. As a police officer, Provost had a shotgun pointed at her. As a young Border Patrol agent, she and two other agents were trapped at the bottom of a ditch near Douglas while smugglers were heaving large chunks of concrete at them. “We turned off our radios and eventually made our way out of there, but if any of those chunks had hit us, we would have been killed.”
I’m Still Carla.
Leading a force of 20,000 agents takes a special skillset.
Asked what the “ingredients” to leadership are, Provost first mentions “humility.”
“I believe in being a humble leader. I am the same Carla Provost that I was when I was a first-line agent in Douglas. I’m still Carla.” That approachability is tied directly to her earlier interest in teaching and coaching. “The mentoring part of my job, the leadership part of my job are, by far, my favorite things to do. I love our people. I love getting out there and talking to the frontline agents at all levels. I would say that I’m very approachable and the agents are not afraid to just come up and talk to me. I love that part of the job.”
The second ingredient in leadership is understanding. “Leaders must understand what their employees are seeing, what they are facing day to day,” she says. “You need to understand what they need and you need to advocate to make sure they get what they need to do their very best. Leaders are there to support the men and women who report to them. Yes, it’s important to lead them, and I am comfortable standing out front, but the bottom line is that you have to really listen to your people.”
Third, Provost says leadership requires accountability and taking ownership for every decision. “You need to learn from your experience and apply it to every decision you make and you must be willing to fall on your sword.”
Provost is adamant about work-life balance, and she says she constantly has to remind her Headquarters staff to go home when it gets late. “If it’s not an emergency, the work will be here in the morning,” she notes.
She herself has a daughter. “Haley will be 13 this August and she is an amazing child,” Provost says proudly. “She gets straight As without anyone pushing her, and she sings and loves music and theater. She is an independent, driven, and determined only child.”
Today, Provost looks back on her career with pride in having given it her all. It’s an attitude that has earned her the top post at the U.S. Border Patrol, 23 years after stepping off that bus in Douglas, Arizona. “I am never bored,” she notes. “The best part of my new job will be to represent the men and women on the front lines by making and influencing decisions that support their efforts in the field for years to come. I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to lead these amazing men and women. I know first-hand the sacrifices they make to protect this country, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”