Watch and Learn

One benefit to earning a homeland security degree in the D.C. area: the experts on hand

February 11, 2013

Maria AbuZeid Ruttig continued her role in the Coast Guard while earning a degree.

Maria AbuZeid Ruttig had worked on drug trafficking missions, and she’d worked on search-and-rescue operations. She’d helped to secure U.S. ports and been staffed at a terrorist-screening center. In her job with the U.S. Coast Guard, AbuZeid Ruttig had seen plenty, but she wanted to see more.

Specifically, she wanted to learn more about security issues such as food safety and bioterrorism, issues that just aren’t as common when you work on the high seas. So AbuZeid Ruttig decided to go to grad school.

“It broadens your perspective, because you see aspects of security you wouldn’t normally see,” says AbuZeid Ruttig, who, in 2007, enrolled in the University of Maryland University College to earn a graduate certificate in homeland security management.

D.C.-area universities have a big advantage when it comes to homeland security degrees: their proximity to agency headquarters. Professors have résumés cluttered with such acronyms as CIA, FBI and DHS, which allows them to bring real-world experiences to the classroom.

And so do students. Many grad programs require students to have an impressive résumé in the security field and make it easy for students to earn a degree while they continue their work.

AbuZeid Ruttig was able to complete the classes she needed for a graduate certificate online.

“It was a lot harder in some ways than the brick-and-mortar classroom type [of degree], but for me it was more convenient,” AbuZeid Ruttig says. Especially when she had her first child, then was transferred to Detroit in the middle of getting her degree, which she completed in 2010.

Now 40 and living in Crofton, Md., Lt. AbuZeid Ruttig is an intelligence officer in the Coast Guard and plans to return to school this fall. She’ll take the additional courses needed to earn a Master of Science in homeland security management at UMUC.

AbuZeid Ruttig decided to continue, in part, to bolster her career. “It looks better for promotion if you have your master’s,” she says.

Stephanie Wehrheim, 30, also wanted to get a master’s to further her career — and also didn’t want to stop working to do it.

Wehrheim’s résumé already included work in emergency management for the American Red Cross, and she was consulting with Booz Allen Hamilton when she decided to go back to school.

She chose George Washington University’s master’s degree in security and safety leadership because the program is designed for full-time students with day jobs. “[GWU] really caters to people who are working,” Wehrheim says. “They understand the pressure we have at work in addition to school stuff.”

Wehrheim brought a wealth of experience to the classroom, and so did her peers. Applicants typically need at least two years of on-the-job experience, says Frederic Lemieux, program director at GWU. Many students come with a background in police work or firefighting, he says, or, like Wehrheim, private-sector security work.

Veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan also find a home in GWU’s program. “We give them a springboard to reinstate themselves in society,” Lemieux says.

Wehrheim says that most of her professors were also working professionals, still employed in defense, intelligence and security positions while teaching.

“They were realistic in what they asked of us and had really awesome experiences that they could apply to the classroom,” Wehrheim says.

“It’s fantastic to be able to tap into that wealth of experience,” says Lorenzo Falciani, 33, who graduated from GWU in January 2012 with a master’s degree in security and safety leadership. He’s now a security consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City.

After 10 years consulting in aerospace defense in his native Italy, Falciani came to GWU to enhance his career.

Why here? “In D.C., the public agencies are a step ahead in security,” he says. “There’s a stronger need.”

American University professors take that real-world experience to another level.

During the final semester of American’s international affairs master’s program, students can participate in a capstone course led by professors who work in the field. The students’ mission (should they chose to accept it) is to combine forces to put together a report for a government agency or corporate entity.

This fall, 12 students sorted through “over 1,100 propaganda pieces from al-Qaeda to understand the different al-Qaeda affiliated organizations’ relation to al-Qaeda’s core,” says Professor David Martin-McCormick, who teaches intelligence and national-security courses at American University.

“They held their own with [Defense Intelligence Agency] experts on al-Qaeda” when they presented their findings, he says. They did so well, in fact, they have been asked to make a similar presentation to the CIA.

Martin-McCormick often draws on his 37 years of experience working in U.S. intelligence to create simulation exercises for his students. In a terrorism class, for example, he breaks the students into two teams: one team of terrorists to launch an attack on the U.S., and a team of government workers to try to figure it out and stop them.

While the terrorist team plans their attack, Martin-McCormick gives the government team mountains of intel to scour.

“The government has to come to grips with an enormous amount of information,” Martin-McCormick says.

In order to replicate the challenges real intelligence officers face, the professor gives the students “some wrong intel, some late, some inconsistent, some missing … and they have to sort through all of it.”

This year, the government team stopped the terrorists, and both teams learned firsthand that art does not imitate life.

“You can’t just draw off something like a Hollywood story and pull off a terrorist attack,” Martin-McCormick says.

So does that mean homeland security intelligence work isn’t an action-packed world of covert missions going down at “Zero Dark Thirty”?

“It’s a lot of reading,” AbuZeid Ruttig says.

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