D.C. native Ebony Tillery knew she was in the right town to pursue a career in national security. She just needed to select the right graduate school — which meant finding a program that could keep up with the evolving field.
Careers in homeland security are constantly adapting in response to the latest security threats, technological innovations and policies. And grad programs need to adapt, too.
Tillery, 22, was drawn to a program at the University of the District of Columbia. With just 30 students in a typical class, the program allowed her to interact with students and teachers, many of whom are still working professionals with firsthand knowledge of how the field is evolving.
“I like the personal feel of being able to communicate with my teachers and with my peers, who come from various walks of life,” says Tillery, whose classmates have worked for fire departments, police forces and the military, among other places.
She says the program frequently invites professionals in the field to speak with the students. “We’re able to ask questions, and we’re able to exchange business cards,” she says. “So we can keep up on what’s going on.”
Tillery’s academic adviser, Angelyn Flowers, is the co-director of the University’s Institute for Public Safety and Justice. In the courses Flowers teaches she draws from real-world examples. Her class on disaster preparedness, for instance, discussed lessons from Hurricane Katrina.
The university even received a grant from the Homeland Security National Training Program to develop a course on legal issues related to disasters and emergencies
All of this is to prepare students for the job market. “We maintain contacts with homeland-security professionals to see what their evolving needs are in terms of the people they are hiring,” Flowers says.
Some of those contacts are on campus: Most of the program’s adjunct professors are practitioners in the field, Flowers says.
That’s also the case at Johns Hopkins University, where the Master of Arts in Global Security Studies program is constantly evolving. A graduate certificate in intelligence is in the works based on input from teachers and students about the fastest growing sector of homeland security.
“We go to the conferences and conventions. We read the journals, we participate in the practical and political debates of our day,” says Mark Stout, the program’s director, who spent 13 years in intelligence and three years as historian at the International Spy Museum.
The vast majority of the 200 students in the Johns Hopkins program also work full time, including 26-year-old Alisha Powell, who is a policy analyst for the homeland security and public safety division of the National Governors Association. The Queens, N.Y., native graduated from the M.A. program in December.
Powell often found her classwork and her job overlapping. Her thesis — in which she argued that the U.S. government overemphasizes terrorist threats that originate abroad when domestic threats are just as serious — was inspired by interactions with state homeland security advisers at her job.
“Hearing those conversations got my mind turning,” Powell says.
Having classmates who worked in other parts of the homeland security industry also enhanced her experience. “It was really interesting to get everyone else’s perspectives, where school and work life converge,” she says.
Students like Powell help keep Johns Hopkins’ curriculum relevant by providing end-of-semester feedback on coursework. In fact, a student who works for the Department of Homeland Security inspired a recent course addition, “Cyberforce Superiority: Foundational Elements,” which provides an introduction to cyber operations for students who aren’t pursuing technical careers.
For American University Professor Joseph Young, the value of adapting coursework from the real world hit home after last year’s Boston Marathon bombing. Young, who teaches in American’s Master of Science in Justice, Law and Criminology program, happened to be teaching a course on domestic terrorism for the first time, after advocating for such a class unsuccessfully for years.
“It was really readily apparent why studying domestic terrorism was critical in dealing with national security threats,” Young says, noting that the bombing made many programs turn their focus from foreign threats to local ones. “Security issues adapt and change.”
And so too must the graduate programs that study them.
AMBREEN ALI (FOR EXPRESS)