Nicholas Dujmovic teaches Introduction to American Intelligence at Catholic University in Washington. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Joe Colucci wasn't completely in the dark. He had a friend whose father worked for the FBI, after all. That gave Colucci a peek into the world of intelligence and law enforcement. Plus, he's seen spy movies. (Actually, that doesn't really help at all, but more on that later.)

When the 19-year-old Colucci realized Catholic University was starting an intelligence studies certificate program, he thought it would be a great opportunity. Even if there was still mystery surrounding the whole thing.

"It was sort of foreign to me," he said. "I had some idea of what they did, and what their job entailed."

At Catholic, he began to figure it out. "That's when I really, really knew that this was something I wanted to pursue," said Colucci, a sophomore from White Plains, N.Y.

The first intelligence program at a civilian university emerged 25 years ago, and since then, they have spread to other schools across the nation. That expansion accelerated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, experts said, with one study finding a further surge since 2009.

Students discover what goes into collection, analysis, covert action, counterintelligence — and that's what really draws in students at Catholic, including Ben Hewitt.

"I liked it, because it made you use your mind, you know?" he said. "It made you really need to think."

In fall 2016, Catholic introduced its intelligence studies certificate program, directed by Nicholas Dujmovic, a former staff historian for the CIA who came to the school after more than 20 years with the agency.

In the classroom, Dujmovic corrects misconceptions forged by pop culture, offers real-life perspective and a chance to learn about a world shrouded in mystery, one that students may have grown interested in without truly knowing what it was.

It might seem curious, teaching this craft at the Vatican's university in America. But Dujmovic said he has found no constraints applied to the curriculum and has covered tensions inherent to this type of work, moral dilemmas and "nasty stuff" that has happened.

"Here, you have a search for truth in goodwill, and wherever we go, it's legitimate," Dujmovic said.

Catholic University spokeswoman Elise Italiano said in a statement that the university was founded to educate students who would serve the church and country, and throughout its history has responded to changing needs.

"Today, many of our students aspire to work in politics, security and law — intelligence is an increasingly important field of study to offer for those pursuing careers in these areas," she said.

At Catholic, nearly 25 students are pursuing a certificate in intelligence studies.

"We all believe there's a genuine need for more intelligence people," Colucci said, "for the younger generation to step up and take the reins and learn about this stuff."

Another voice of support for the program — offered at Catholic as a minor, not a major — comes from retired Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency and a visiting professor at George Mason University.

"I am Catholic by my own religious tradition, and I love to see my faith's premier university in this country embrace this as a field of academic study, so that Catholic U.'s philosophical approach, ethical approach, historical approach, and so on, gets applied to this part of American life, which I think is understudied," said Hayden, who is scheduled to visit the school Wednesday.

The first intelligence program at a civilian school popped up at Mercyhurst College, now known as Mercyhurst University, in the early 1990s. People pursuing analyst positions in intelligence fields had come out of political science departments or related disciplines, said Mercyhurst Provost David Dausey, but needed to learn the basics of intelligence work.

"To be quite honest, when we first started the program people thought it was unusual that what at the time was a small liberal arts college would be offering a degree in intelligence studies," Dausey said. "Our emphasis really was on recognizing the need to train entry-level analysts for the intelligence community."

In the years since the program at the Erie, Pa., school started, there has been a rapid growth in national security and intelligence-related programs, said Duncan McGill, dean of the Ridge College of Intelligence Studies and Applied Sciences at Mercyhurst.

Dausey said students are often attracted by what they've seen in movies or on TV. When they arrive, Mercyhurst introduces them to "the reality," he said.

"Sometimes those things overlap, and sometimes they don't," he said.

There are other Washington-area universities in addition to Catholic for students seeking intelligence or security coursework, or instruction from former intelligence professionals. George­town has a master's in applied intelligence, and Georgetown's law school offers national security as an area of study. And George Mason has started a center for intelligence, policy and international security that bears Hayden's name.

"There's a lot of interest in the subject area, but I think generally, in the public, there's a low level of understanding of what intelligence does, what value it has to the country," said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason.

In his role at the university, Hayden tries to demystify the work, so that students' image of intelligence isn't exclusively from TV shows starring Kiefer Sutherland (no offense, Kiefer Sutherland).

"I think what [Dujmovic is] trying to do, and I know certainly I'm trying to do, is to raise the level of public understanding of American espionage, or espionage in a Democratic society," Hayden said.

Hewitt is familiar with Dujmovic and his curriculum. A sophomore at Catholic, he described himself as a "West Wing" guy, the type of person who thought he'd wind up on Capitol Hill someday. He grew interested in intelligence and was looking for a minor when he met with Dujmovic. Then, Hewitt took the introductory intelligence class.

"That really just changed me," he said.

Hewitt, 19, is president of Catholic University intelligence club, a fledgling effort that has been around only a few months. He is from Prince William County, Va., and has enjoyed learning what happens in his back yard. He sees a future in this field.

"Everybody thinks intelligence is this dangerous, very almost evil kind of business," Hewitt said. "That's not what I get from it anymore.

"Learning about it, it seems like almost a necessity right now."