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Internship opens doors for grad

September 28, 2007

When James Tibbs decided to pursue a college education, it was later than most: almost 20 years after he had graduated from Alhambra High School in Phoenix in 1983. And it wasn’t with the thought he would design and create a computer database system to track and inventory evidence and evidentiary information for the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (AcTIC).

Tibbs, 41, graduated from ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, as well as one in interdisciplinary studies. The internship he served before receiving his diploma put him in a James Bond-like world with the interagency intelligence operation that is the centerpiece of Arizona’s homeland security detection and prevention strategy.

“Not every internship is quite so mysterious or exotic, but we do our best to provide our students with a real-world experience that will better prepare them for a professional career,” says Elaine Jordan, who placed nearly 80 students in internships last year as the program manager for the New College.

“The students gain tremendous knowledge during their years at ASU, and they learn that their skills are transferable,” says Jordan, who earned her doctorate in international relations from ASU. “As they think about what they will do after graduation, some continue their education, while others use the internship to gain valuable experience and as a bridge between college and their careers.”

For Tibbs, the opportunity to work with AcTIC was an extension of his interest in the subject area. The agency, boasting 17 different divisions, works with 43 different agencies and provides the initial framework for counter terrorism detection, planning, response and recovery for the state of Arizona.

“I’ve always been interested in terrorism and security, and when Dr. Jordan approached me with the idea, I jumped at it,” he says.

The internship was the capstone of a journey that led from two associate’s degrees at Paradise Valley Community College to two years at ASU’s West campus and a pair of bachelor’s degrees.

“I’m a single parent, and I wanted to get back to school, but the timing was never right,” says Tibbs, who hopes to use his AcTIC experience as a springboard to further work for the agency, or in other civil and law enforcement areas. “I just couldn’t fit it in. But I saw a trend in my job situation that I didn’t like, and I knew going to college was going to open up opportunities and experiences I wasn’t currently realizing.”

Tibbs’ contribution to AcTIC was nearly immediate, although it surprised him. The project assigned by Department of Public Safety Lt. Lori Norris – also the AcTIC watch center commander – was to write a database to more easily and effectively monitor and catalog evidence that entered and left the agency’s Phoenix headquarters.

“What I learned through the New College was that a narrow focus doesn’t work, and that there is a bigger picture that you are a part of,” Tibbs says. “You have to take a, ‘Yeah, I can do this,’ approach to everything in life, and that is what I did at AcTIC – although it was pretty unusual territory. It was everything from phones and computers, to other types of equipment that had either been confiscated or secured. Some of it was relevant to pending cases, some of it wasn’t.”

Tibbs was given the proverbial “baptism under fire” and worked beyond the one-semester time frame to complete the effort.

“I designed a system that was trackable, so that evidence could be searched, depending on the individual case, and immediately pulled by AcTIC investigators when needed,” he says. “When it was done and it worked, it was such a great feeling; it was really incredible. I had the feeling that I was really doing something important, and that was rewarding. It was a real confidence-builder.”

For his efforts, Tibbs was presented with a plaque by Sgt. Randy Arthur, AcTIC’s computer forensic lab supervisor.

Tibbs’ program has been incorporated into AcTIC’s operations so successfully that the organization’s sister lab in Tucson will use the program.

“James was assigned to the computer forensic lab to upgrade the system,” says Norris, who received a bachelor’s degree in police science and administration from Northern Arizona University, and who has been with DPS for 27 years and with AcTIC since its inception in 2004. “It was a learning experience for him, and he educated himself to upgrade and update the database. What he did for AcTIC was most definitely an improvement; he was a tremendous asset, and his work allowed our officers to spend more time pursuing their cases.”

Tibbs’ internship took him into a world much different from most internships, Jordan says.

“We have developed a great and valuable partnership with leaders of local and even national companies, businesses and agencies who know the strengths of our students and the many wonderful benefits they provide,” she says.

From the Hand Surgery Associates of Michigan, to Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers, to the Office of the Governor of the State of Arizona, to the St. Mary’s Food Bank, and from dozens of other opportunities, ASU’s internship program in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences is a potpourri of learning experiences designed to better prepare its students for life in the world.