Criminal Justice Students Put Theory Into Practice
By Mike Emery
Practice makes perfect.
It’s an adage that’s quite fitting for University of Houston-Downtown students, particularly those in the discipline of Criminal Justice.
Based within UHD’s College of Public Service, Criminal Justice degree offerings have been nearly synonymous with the University itself. The bachelor’s program was UHD’s first standalone degree. Its popularity led to a master’s program in Criminal Justice, and an online master’s program, which is ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
Both are 36-hour programs that include courses focused on the most pertinent issues in the field and offer the skills needed for students in their careers or to continue on to a doctoral program.
“This master’s program was UHD’s first graduate degree and its first online graduate degree,” said Dr. Ashley Blackburn, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Social Work. “It is taught by our exceptional full-time faculty and offers quality instruction and a distinctive learning experience to those enrolled. The program continues to produce prestigious alumni who serve in leadership roles across the criminal justice field in the Houston area and beyond.”
The products of these degree programs are evident in Houston’s community. Law enforcement professionals and public servants have emerged from UHD with both degrees and practical know-how they can apply to their chosen professions.
Currently, online graduate student Jessica Ayala is among the many students who are applying the lessons learned in UHD’s Criminal Justice curriculum to a career in the field. After earning a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice in 2009, she returned to her alma mater for her graduate degree. She started her master’s in 2013 then took a hiatus. She’s back at UHD and is now enrolled in the online program.
“While I was an undergraduate student, I interned with the Texas Attorney General’s office,” she said. “During that internship, I fell in love with victims’ services, helping those who had been victimized understand their rights and the services available to them. I thought I could be of more help to the community if I earned my master’s degree.”
Ayala currently works at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office serving as a Victims Assistance Coordinator (serving as a liaison between victims and prosecutors). The master’s degree, she said, will eventually help her advance her career.
“In a competitive workforce, I need to stand out and excel in my career,” she said. “I’ve been working in victims services for almost nine years and it’s important that I’m educated in other areas of criminal justice.”
Ayala added that she’s grateful for the support of UHD’s Criminal Justice faculty in helping her career goals. Other graduate Criminal Justice students share her sentiment and hope to emulate their professors after earning master’s degrees.
Her fellow graduate student Beatriz Amalfi Marques wants to apply the knowledge gained at UHD to a career in academia. Thanks to research opportunities at UHD, she’s certainly on the right track.
Marques has assisted faculty members, Drs. Lori Lovins and Rebecca Pfeffer in their research on increasing family connectedness during incarceration through the use of video visitation with family. As a research assistant for this project (funded through a grant from the Simmons Foundation), she visits a local correctional facility weekly to consult with residents and assist them with video visitations (using Facetime or Skype on iPads) with family members. Data from this study will be analyzed in the fall.
“I’ve been fortunate to be a part of this real world research project,” she said. “Sometimes, you have to step away from the textbook and experience what’s happening in the field. That’s what’s happening now. I am part of an actual effort aimed at understanding the rehabilitation effort of women.”
Born in Brazil, Marques has long had an interest in the discipline of criminal justice. That interest has intensified through the years, particularly as she has been very engaged at UHD.
“I fell in love with criminology, and as a student, I appreciate exploring the balance between theory and real world practice,” she said.
Pfeffer, Director of the Master’s of Science in Criminal Justice graduate program, said that students such as Ayala and Marques will certainly have an advantage in each of their professional journeys thanks to their experiences at UHD.
“Our students benefit from our faculty and a rigorous curriculum,” she said. “But they also have the advantage of learning from each other. Having these different insights in our classes and within the program is very beneficial for all of our students. It is not just the course content, but also the experience of respectfully listening to, engaging with, and learning from people with different perspectives, that prepares our graduates for success in criminal justice leadership positions upon graduation.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.