Beyond the Badge: Always Keep Your Options Open
*This article is part of In Public Safety’s September focus on career transitions*
By Dr. Chuck Russo, program director of Criminal Justice at American Military University
Lately, I’ve been having more of those “how did I get here?” kind of days. In just over 25 years, I went from a 19-year-old kid driving a patrol car to a 47-year-old Ph.D. running a department for a major university.
While I really didn’t picture myself at this place in life all those years ago, I always planned for the “what if” and worked to keep my options open. I believe, looking back, that this strategy greatly aided my transition from a career in government public safety to where I am now.
How I Got There
Presently, I’m the program director of Criminal Justice for American Military University. I’m responsible for overall department operations, which includes 60+ courses, 80+ faculty members, and thousands of student registrations every year.
My path to this point was never clear-cut or intentional. In college, I found myself bored by business courses, so I cut my program short, got my associate’s degree, and went to the police academy. I soon found myself working as a patrol officer at 19 years old.
I quickly realized while it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. After I cleared probation with my department, I realized I needed to go back to school so I had a back-up plan in case I got hurt or otherwise couldn’t pursue a career as a police officer.
I started taking courses but I couldn’t complete a degree in business because those courses weren’t regularly offered in the night school program. So, I looked for a program that offered night classes and would allow me to graduate in a timely manner, which led me to the criminal justice program.
I remember taking a police technology course with an instructor who retired from police work back in the late 60s. I ended up helping him and even teaching some of the course because I had access to the newer technology and could explain how it actually worked. At that point, I figured I could teach and decided to get my PhD.
Fortunately, my department had a great education reimbursement policy. At the same time, I started to get involved in training. I flipped through the course catalog and found a graduate degree that really interested me. I took the GRE, applied to the program, and was accepted in the Masters of Education – Instructional System Design program. The program was for instructional designers and training specialists who worked in settings where education, training, and professional development take place. It was a perfect fit for me.
As I was finishing up my last course in the program, I got a call from the chair of the criminal justice department at the university. I had known Bernie since he arrived at the university and we stayed in touch after I earned by bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He told me he was launching a graduate degree in criminal justice and wanted me to enroll in the program.
I already had a few years of graduate school under my belt and taking more courses wasn’t very appealing. He said he needed students who he knew would graduate and he really needed my help. I’m forever grateful he talked me into it. After a lot of hard work and long hours, I earned a graduate degree in criminal justice in 1995.
At the same time, Bernie was tasked by his boss to see if he could figure out how to use the Internet for education. Back then, AOL was still charging by the hour and if you had a 14.4 dial-up modem you experienced blazing speed! He knew he didn’t have any faculty who could pull it off, so he again called me into his office. With my MA in education and my MS in criminal justice, he figured I had the best shot at making it work.
I did and 20 years later, I’m still involved with online learning.
Years and much hard work later, I earned my Ph.D. in public affairs. For many years I was able to work as a full-time law enforcement officer while being part-time college faculty. Eventually, I flipped the two and was full-time college faculty while being a part-time law enforcement officer. It was challenging to balance both careers, however, each one improved my abilities in the other. While it was a lot of work, it was an achievement that got me where I am today. I finally retired from law enforcement in April 2013 after being injured in 2011—hopefully the last time someone tries to kill me.
After 21 years of attending college and even more years wearing a badge, I find myself sitting in my home office making sure the 80 or so new courses that open on Monday are ready to go.
My transition process was not what I would call common. There are many ways to go from point A to point B and it seems that I took the scenic route. However, I did it and so can you. By keeping your options open and taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves, you can discover life beyond the badge.
About the Author: Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.