Next year, Justan Holloway’s class schedule will look like the plot of an action movie: The college student will study international terrorism, disaster planning, criminology, social psychology and Arabic.
Holloway plans to be among the first to enroll in Savannah State University’s new degree program in homeland security.
The program is among a growing number of its kind as U.S. colleges try to meet rising demand for specialists trained in national defense and emergency management.
Graduates are finding themselves attractive to government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as to defense contractors and other companies, where they do such things as create emergency management plans and design gas masks.
Some programs focus on terrorism and manmade threats. Others, such as Savannah State’s, also train students to help with natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the U.S. Gulf Coast last year.
“After the Katrina situation, I didn’t like the way FEMA handled it,” sys Holloway, 19. “I was like, ‘Maybe I can make a difference.’”
More than 300 colleges offer some type of instruction in homeland security, a trend that began soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security, which started three years ago with just a few institutions and is based at The Ohio State University.
Dr. Todd Stewart, director of the consortium, says the college programs generally do not run background checks on applicants to weed out terrorists who might be looking for inside information on the nation’s defenses.
He says foreigners applying for student visas are already subject to screening, which has become more rigorous since Sept. 11. Also, he points out that college programs are not teaching sensitive information that isn’t widely available elsewhere.
Critics say that awarding degrees in homeland security is pointless because the field is too broad and generic. It would be better to major in a specific aspect of national defense, such as Middle Eastern studies or cybersecurity, says Dr. Steven Lab, head of the criminal justice department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“This is a money grab is what it is,” Lab says. “The federal government decided to pour our money on this, and everybody wants to get a piece of the pie.”
The Homeland Security Department spends about $50 million a year on grants to colleges for research in national defense and for science and engineering scholarships.
“You can slice that and dice that lots of ways — first responders, science and engineering, intelligence analysis, critical infrastructure,” says Laura Petonito, acting director of HSD’s university division.
The field is still evolving.
“In the beginning of 2003, most would say homeland security has something to do with terrorism. If you say it at the beginning of 2007, it’s terrorism, earthquakes and who knows what else,” says Stewart. “This is a long way from being an academic discipline.”
Many schools created their programs by regrouping existing courses such as biosecurity, terrorism and Arabic into one area of study. Colleges are also beefing up public administration programs and disaster-relief training to produce graduates ready to help cities and states plan for and respond to disasters.
Dr. Shirley Geiger, whose department of political science, public administration and urban studies at Savannah State will house its homeland security program, says the historically Black college will produce more minorities ready to work in disaster relief.
“We want to make sure those who respond to disasters look like the people who are needing assistance,” Geiger says. “There are cultural differences in how people respond to emergencies.”
Virginia Commonwealth University started its program in 2005, and had 100 students enrolled after its first year. So far, four students have graduated. Program coordinator Dr. William W. Newmann says two are employed in emergency management and one is starting work with the Border Patrol. The fourth is in graduate school.
“People asked the question, ‘Is homeland security just going to be a fad?’” Newmann says. “Even if we are as successful as we can possibly imagine being fighting terrorism, the emergency response and natural disaster response will be there.”
The University of Massachusetts-Lowell offers a certificate in homeland security that is open to students pursuing various majors. The instructors are former intelligence personnel with the FBI, CIA and military.
“If you look at the Web sites of these agencies, they’re not looking for degrees in criminal justice or criminology,” says Dr. Eve S. Buzawa, head of the college’s criminal justice department. “They want engineers and technology people who have expertise in this area.”
— Associated Press
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