VCU professors reflect on 5th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks

VCU’s Homeland security and emergency preparedness degree developed as a result

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Virginia Commonwealth University homeland security and emergency preparedness Associate Professor Bill Parrish remembers Sept. 11, 2001, all too well.  Parrish was working in Washington, D.C., at the time. A rather routine start to his day was quickly changed by a phone call from his wife.

And Professor Bill Newmann, who had been teaching political science and international relations classes at VCU since 1992, also knew his world, and that of future generations, would forever be changed.

In response to that dark day in American history, VCU went to work, creating the nation’s first undergraduate degree in Homeland Security at a major research university.

Parrish’s wife called him at work and told him to find a television to watch because a jet had just hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. Parrish walked up to his boss’s television just as the second jet crashed into the other tower.

“We looked at each other and said we’re at war,” Parrish said.

Parrish said the rest of the day turned into chaos and confusion in Washington. Rumors were flying, the streets were jammed and many feared public transportation options such as the Metro train and subway system could also be the target of terrorists. 

“I walked across the (Potomac) river and looked at the Pentagon smoldering and 2 F-16s in the sky and I thought this has changed our way of life for the foreseeable future,” Parrish said.

Homeland security and emergency preparedness Associate Professor Bill Newmann also remembers how his Sept. 11 quickly turned upside down. 

Newmann, who is also director of undergraduate programs at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public affairs, was at home feeding breakfast to his young daughter when he received a call from his wife, Judy Twigg, associate professor of political science and current interim director at the Wilder School.  She told him to turn on the TV.

“When I saw the images of the towers in flames, my first thought was of my daughter.  Her world has now become significantly different,” Newmann recalls.  “And being from the New York City area, I wondered if people were going to make it out of the towers alive.”

In the following days, Newmann began thinking about courses in terrorism and began modifying some of his courses to include information about the topic. 

“Later, Bob Holsworth (dean of Sciences and Humanities) approached Judy and me and asked us to look into building a program to offer courses in homeland security,” Newmann said.

That program grew into the nation’s first homeland security and emergency preparedness degree at a major research university.  The Bachelor of Arts degree was first offered in the fall 2005 semester.  An online graduate degree is being developed and may be available to students as early as the spring 2007 semester.

“The master’s program will go for state approval in September or October.  And obviously, the state will approve this very critical and needed master’s program,” Parrish said.

For Parrish, the decision to join the faculty at VCU was both personal and professional. His son, daughter-in-law and grandson lived in the Richmond area.  Parrish, a former senior official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was impressed with VCU’s efforts.

“I always kind of thought I would like to teach and work with young people.  It’s very similar to what we do in the military,” Parrish said.  Parrish said VCU was appealing because he believed in what the university was doing in teaching students to take leadership roles in the fields of homeland security and emergency preparedness. 

Assisting in the development of the homeland security and emergency preparedness curriculum turned into an offer to teach full time. 

“When I met with Tom Ridge and told him what I was doing, I said we need to institutionalize this in our colleges and universities,” Parrish said.  “Tom Ridge was very impressed with the program.  That’s how I got here.”

The homeland security and emergency preparedness program awarded degrees to four students last May.  Another 20 are expected to be awarded degrees in May 2007. Organizers expected 100 HSEP majors within five years.  Just one year into the program, there are 101 declared majors.
“The growth opportunity for this program both in terms of numbers and academics is very favorable,” Parrish said.  “Now it’s important for us to increase some of the electives to help students focus on exactly what they want to do and lead them to specific career goals,” he added.

The degree prepares graduates for a variety of roles in the fields of homeland security and emergency preparedness, from careers in the FBI, CIA or U.S. Border Patrol to state or local emergency management offices or risk assessment managers for private companies.

“The nature of this program is to teach students how to manage.  It is a professional degree,” Newmann said. 

Newmann and Parrish say that while other universities are starting to offer similar programs, VCU’s homeland security and emergency preparedness degree offers tremendous advantages for students who are thinking about pursuing careers in the field. 

Advantages include strong support from the Virginia governor and Department of Emergency Management, which gives students great opportunities for internships and job contacts.  The campus’ proximity to Washington also creates similar internship possibilities as well as opportunities to hear from guest lecturers who hold prominent homeland security and emergency preparedness roles with the federal government. 

Newman and Parrish said graduates of the homeland security and emergency preparedness program will be better prepared to respond to future disasters, whether natural or manmade.

“One of the biggest observations I saw in the response to September 11th was a lack of understanding of individual roles, responsibilities and capabilities,” Parish said.

“The graduates of our program will be able to understand the responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the FBI and the CIA.  We are teaching students in our classrooms many of the lessons learned over the past five years,” Parrish said.

Many of the students now pursuing a degree in homeland security and emergency preparedness were young teenagers on September 11th.  Newmann says the terror attacks have prompted these young adults to pursue career paths that will protect their country and their communities.

“After September 11th, there was a huge change in the national mindset.  People felt vulnerable and that lasted for a while.  In some ways, we’re now back to normal.  On one hand, we have learned to live with vulnerability.  On the other, we could become complacent.  A program like our homeland security and emergency preparedness degree will prevent complacency,” Newmann said.