Have you ever wanted to see the world through the eyes of Donald Rumsfeld or Tom Ridge? OK, maybe you haven’t, but more than 200 students at Virginia Commonwealth University seem to think they could make a living doing just that. And they’re betting their education on it by enlisting in the country’s first undergraduate program to offer a degree specializing in homeland security.
Professors like VCU’s William Parrish (a retired Marine colonel) see this curriculum as a chance to prep future leaders to deal with the realities of life post-9/11; a world rife with threats of nuclear and terrorist attacks, devastating natural disasters, and breaches of individual securities and freedoms.
“There is no better place to institutionalize something in the country than our universities and colleges,” said Parrish, an associate professor who had previously worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its former head, Secretary Tom Ridge.
Parrish heads up the program’s Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness 101 course, as well as a class focusing on the intelligence community and the intelligence process. A prime topic of class discussion lately has been the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, and the lessons the public — as well as the government — can learn in the wake of the disasters.
“We’ve got a great history in this country of always learning from crisis and responding to it,” Parrish said. “I think the more we can do to understand the way to conduct effective planning, the better we’ll be prepared to possibly prevent another disaster or terrorist attack.”
The undergrad program, which debuted this fall at VCU, also tackles the issue of emergency preparedness, a much broader course than the typical emergency-management classes that have been taught on college campuses for years.
“A lot of schools had emergency-management courses, but post-9/11, there’s a lot more to it than just response and recovery,” Parrish said. The three other crucial pillars, he notes, are prevention, destruction and protection, which he discusses at length in his introductory course.
“I think it’s important to understand how our country operates at the heart,” said 20-year-old Victoria Burns, a junior enrolled in the class. “Homeland security is a part of politics and what makes the government, yet you never hear how the process works and that’s a problem.”
Education typically means empowerment, but not all of Burns’ friends have been supportive of her chosen major. “There are a few who think this is the dumbest thing there is,” she admitted. “They feel like this is just a fad that will die out within the next five years.”
Not so, says associate professor William Newmann, who leads an upper-level terrorism course that explores its history and evolution, the ideology behind it, and the workings of the intricate global network al Qaeda.
“This global war on terrorism is going to be around for a long time, and I think it’s important for students to have a good understanding of it in order to judge whether or not we have been successful in fighting it these last four years,” Newmann said.
For one of its semester projects, the class is split into groups of six with each group assigned to research a specific terrorist cell and evaluate aspects of it such as origin, leadership, counterterrorism efforts, nonviolent political activities, and so on. At the end of the course, each group must present its findings to the class in the form of an intelligence briefing, which forces the students to condense large amounts of information, something they’d be doing if they were to work for the CIA, FBI or any other government agency, Newmann said.
Already, similar courses are popping up at colleges across the nation, Parrish said, but VCU is the first major research institution to offer a major in homeland security and emergency preparedness, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The university is also in talks to develop a master’s program, which it hopes to post online by next fall.
Parrish, who is currently teaching 75 students in his introductory course, said the demand for the classes has been overwhelming. “I’ve had students say to me they want to bring a friend in who isn’t enrolled, and that’s very encouraging,” he said.
The university has also been fortunate to receive assistance from several federal and state agencies, including the FBI, the CIA, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Department of Homeland Security, though Parrish notes the government’s involvement with the curriculum is minimal.
“They just want to make sure we have a quality program,” he said. “I think anytime anyone is trying to do anything positive in the area of homeland security, no one wants to derail or slow down that process.”