Criminology graduate finds satisfaction in online degree

John Shea earned his Bachelor's degree online from Southern California.

The way John Shea sees it, if he can focus on online classes while trying to juggle family and work, then anyone can do it. The 43-year old father was in the middle of the spring 2012 semester when his wife gave birth to their son.

"Talk about planning issues. That was a challenge," said Shea. "I know other students have challenges, but it can be done."

The father of four will receive his Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. The distinction comes more than 20 years after Shea tried to attend college the traditional way. He went to community college after high school and enrolled at San Diego State in the early 1990's. But his new job as a U.S. Customs agent made it hard to balance family, work and school.

"I did well when I was able to get to classes, but it became increasing harder to do that because of family and work and other obligations," Shea said. "But I always felt like it was important to pursue a degree. I kept trying, but at some point it just became impossible to be on campus."

That's because his job included stints at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry on the border between Tijuana and San Diego. Shea was also assigned to the airport and seaport in San Diego, as well as the Long Beach port of entry. He kept looking for a way to satisfy his need for more knowledge, but nothing caught his eye. Then, Shea found out he could earn a degree from an accredited university online – ASU.

"And I thought 'certainly a better route than one of these universities that offers online degrees for working adults,'" recalled Shea. "You know, I wanted the traditional experience as close as I could get it. And ASU seemed to be the place that would offer me that."

Shea began taking online classes through the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU in the fall of 2010. He expected some research and writing would be involved.  But he didn’t realize how challenging and rewarding the learning process would be. And when it came to online tests, Shea said it wasn't just a matter of going through a text book looking for answers.

"It was never a question of 'I could just skim through the book and find the answers, you know what I mean?'" said Shea. "It just seemed to me it was a lot more challenging, which I liked because I want to feel like I earned something at the end of the day."

A good example, Shea pointed out, is one of his most recent classes: CRJ 443, Community Corrections. The class was created more than a dozen years ago by Dan Zorich, assistant director for online education at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. A veteran probation supervisor, Zorich designed the class to examine the latest happenings in community corrections, alternative neighborhood based programs that offered better outcomes compared to incarceration. 

"We want students to actually address those kinds of issues," Zorich said.  "We want them to learn how it actually works in the real world." 

The goal, Zorich said, is to learn how community corrections is on the cutting edge in terms of the different technology used in lieu of locking people up.  A key component of the class is online discussions, including what are called 'hallway conversations.'

Shea said some students in his class were having problems understanding various aspects of communication corrections. That's when his instructor, Amanda Martinez, challenged those with a firmer grasp to help those who were struggling. It was something the 20-year homeland security veteran was glad to do.

"Rather than just thinking that because we're online, that we're on our own, that struck me as a very positive thing to do--to engage other students in trying to help each other out," Shea said.

His help didn't go unnoticed. Martinez said Shea's mentorship of other students who were struggling or grasping concepts was a trait that set him apart from others. 

"John is one of brightest and hardest working students I have had the honor of teaching," said Martinez.

After 15 years as an enforcement officer, Shea became a seized property specialist with U.S. Customs and Border Protection five years ago. Working in Riverside, he oversees a national contract with a company that liquidates items illegally brought into the country. Shea credits his online degree from ASU with giving him a perspective he didn't have before.

"At the end of the day, it is just the pursuit or knowledge, and further than that, how to learn, how to take in information, how to organize it and share it," said Shea. "If I get a memo on a new policy, I can now see it from a broader perspective and analyze it in that way. In other words, I can now go back and say 'how is this different than what we were doing?'"

But Shea isn't done learning. At least, not yet. He plans to pursue a post-graduate degree. 

"I have actually been accepted into ASU's online program (Master of Arts in Criminal Justice)," Shea said. "But I've also been accepted into Cal State San Bernardino, an MPA – Masters of Public Administration. The goal is to take my education as far as I can take it."

Shea said he's leaning toward pursuing an MPA because it would be more applicable to what he does for a living. But he notes that there will always be a place in his heart for ASU and the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

"Arizona State offered me the opportunity to earn a quality education at a reasonable cost,” said Shea. “I'm a fan of the university. My experience has been nothing but positive. It's been a supportive environment.”

So much so, that Shea has encouraged his 19-year old daughter and her friends to consider ASU. He’s impressed that the school has expanded outreach efforts in California at a time when that state’s university and community college systems are announcing enrollment caps and tuition increases. 

"I think they (California policymakers) are shooting themselves in the foot,” Shea said. “I think if people can't afford an education where they live, if they really want it that badly, they're going to have to go somewhere else to find it.”

In fact, Dan Zorich, the assistant director for online education at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, says current students are the university’s best marketing tool because they recommend ASU to their friends and co-workers.

"Quite a few of our students in both the undergrad and graduate programs are coming from Southern California,” said Zorich. “And not from marketing from us, but from hearing it from other students in the program.”

Still, Shea says it didn’t hurt that ASU went out its way to enhance his experience as an out-of-state online student.  The university gave him tickets to the ASU-UCLA football game played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena last fall. It was part of a recruitment effort called ‘ASU in SoCal.’

“I was really impressed that Arizona State was attacking the problem with higher education in California by going out and recruiting,” said Shea. “Just to see the energy with that effort to recruit quality students to ASU – whether it be online or on campus – it's exciting."