First homeland security and emergency preparedness majors set to graduate

VCU first major research university with Homeland Security bachelor’s degree

Share this story

Virginia Commonwealth University this month will award diplomas to the first group of students to complete the only bachelor’s degree program in homeland security and emergency preparedness at a major research university in the United States.

The Bachelor of Arts degrees will be awarded to the four students during a 2:30 p.m. ceremony on May 20 at the Richmond Convention Center.

The graduates are Avery Church of Exmore who will receive a dual degree in political science and homeland security and emergency preparedness; Bryan Downer of Richmond who will receive a degree in homeland security and emergency preparedness; James Yassine of Sterling who will receive a dual degree in political science and homeland security and emergency preparedness; and Amanda Turner of Gloucester who will receive a dual degree in forensic science and homeland security and emergency preparedness.

Church enrolled at VCU to study political science as a first step in pursuing a career in law. He decided to become a double major after he learned of the homeland security degree.

“The opportunity was there to help the community in a different way,” said Church, who plans to use his degree to work in emergency planning. “Especially after 9/11 and Katrina, there’s a real emphasis on disaster preparedness and response. Sept. 11 had an impact on everyone and really showed a need for strong planning.”

Church is confident his degree will be noticed by employers.

“It stands out on an application,” he said. “No one has ever seen this before and I think it will open doors.”

Downer attended VCU in the 1990s and decided to return to pursue a degree in homeland security and emergency preparedness after learning about the program last year.

Downer approached William W. Newmann, Ph.D., associate professor and director of undergraduate programs for the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, who told him about the program.

“The program here is outstanding,” Downer said. “Our instructors really understand international politics, terrorism, risk assessment, intelligence gathering, the U.S. Constitution and legal issues.”

Downer will use his degree to pursue a career in protecting the nation’s borders.

“I believe I’m going to come out of VCU very well prepared to get a job with customs and border patrol,” he said.

Yassine enrolled at VCU to pursue a degree in political science but became very interested in the security aspect of international relations.

“I took a political terrorism course offered by Bill Newmann,” Yassine said. “It really made me aware of political terrorism and the history behind it. It’s a very interesting problem to try to figure out and I decided to get a degree in homeland security once I learned it was available.”

Yassine is pursuing a career as an intelligence analyst for a government agency such as the CIA or NSA.

“I think I’m really prepared for a job in intelligence,” Yassine added.

Turner agrees her degree has fully prepared her for a career in homeland security.

“I feel really marketable,” said Turner, who is the first member of her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. She had considered joining the Virginia Air National Guard before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but a recruiter encouraged her to hold off until she received a college degree so that she could become an officer.

Turner was pursuing a degree in forensic science and had just two classes left to take last fall when a professor told her about the new homeland security degree.

“It was just like a light bulb went off in my head,” she said. “I knew I had to get this degree.”

Turner will pursue a career as a support staff member with a federal agency, and she is interested in pursuing an online master’s degree in Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness. VCU plans to offer a master’s degree as early as spring 2007.

Newmann is confident the first four graduates will succeed.

“They have a degree that no one else does. They are pioneers. That makes them nervous but it also gets them noticed,” he said.

Associate Professor William Parrish, a former senior official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, shares the assessment.

“We are offering students a solid foundation in understanding this whole new profession of homeland security,” Parrish said.

Parrish formerly served as a senior official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and said government agencies and private firms will welcome the new graduates.

“These current and future graduates understand the roles and functions of homeland security agencies as well as how they interact. Homeland security covers almost every aspect of society. There are jobs across the spectrum and tremendous opportunities for our graduates.”

VCU received state approval for a Bachelor of Arts degree in homeland security in May 2005. The first courses were offered during the fall semester.

Newmann says VCU’s homeland security and emergency preparedness degree is already getting noticed.

“The word is getting out,” Newmann said. “The Pentagon and the FBI were practically doing back flips when they learned we were starting this. The Virginia Department of Emergency Management is also very interested and excited.”

Parrish says more out-of-state students are discovering the degree.

“I’m getting e-mails and phone calls from everywhere. I was even contacted by a young soldier in Afghanistan.”

Parrish is not surprised by the degree’s success.

“This is a call to service,” he said. “These students are looking for a way in some capacity to serve the country.” For more information on the program, visit