When the Chicago Police Department hired John Escalante in August of 1986, he was academically ahead of the curve. The rookie police officer had just earned an associate degree, even though it wasn’t required at the time.
As Escalante gained experience in law enforcement, he felt that earning a bachelor’s degree would make him a better person and a better cop. It took about two and a half years of going to class part-time to finish, but Escalante earned his degree in Criminal Justice.
“Education really does play a big role in policing right now, especially for promotion opportunities,” said Escalante, who rose all the way to superintendent before retiring from the Chicago Police Department (CPD) in 2016 and taking over as chief of the Northeastern Illinois University Police Department. “I know that from having sat at those upper-command-level positions in the Chicago Police Department. When we were looking at those final groups of candidates for promotions to the ranks of lieutenants, captain and the command position ranks, we did look at their résumés and looked at their educational backgrounds. We looked to what their bachelor’s was in, what their master’s was in.”
Times have changed since Escalante entered CPD. These days, officers need at least 60 college credit hours, which is equivalent to an associate degree, to join the force. However, the journey doesn’t have to end there. Whether for personal reasons or to create opportunities for professional advancement, police officers can decide to pursue bachelor’s or master’s degrees. The nature of the job can present obstacles, but Northeastern is easing that burden through academic program opportunities that reduce the time it takes to earn a degree and through a tuition deferral that is tied to CPD’s tuition reimbursement program.
“To get promoted to a sergeant, that’s the first line of promotion, you have at least 60 credit hours and you need to have a bachelor’s degree for promotion to lieutenant and a command staff position,” said Escalante, who is considering pursing a master’s degree at Northeastern, where his father is an alumnus. “So, a lot of people come on the job and they have the 60 hours they need but then to get back to school if you have a family, kids, it’s hard to get back to school.”
Northeastern’s Interdisciplinary Studies degree program is a good option for students who have an associate degree and need more flexibility than a traditional bachelor’s degree can offer. With the ability for students to earn up to 36 credit hours for their professional experience and transfer 60 hours or more from an associate degree, students can earn a degree online or through in-person classes in just over a year.
“I wish that when I had gone back to school there was something similar to the bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Studies that’s offered at Northeastern,” Escalante said. “It’s ideal for working adults who are first responders who have to deal with shift work and midnight shifts and overnight and still have other family responsibilities. It definitely reduces the pressure of having to take all the classes you normally would in a classroom setting to get a bachelor’s degree.”
Northeastern also allows eligible CPD employees to defer their tuition payments until they receive compensation from the city through its reimbursement program. The city’s program, which is available to many city employees beyond the CPD, pays for up to two courses per semester, with the percentage of compensation dependent on the students’ final grades.
Northeastern’s tuition deferral program and convenient city location have been helpful for CPD officers such as Daanish Waudiwala, who is currently a Finance major. Waudiwala served as a Northeastern police dispatcher before he was hired by CPD. He takes classes at night before his shift begins at midnight.
“I wanted to be a police officer since I was 5 years old,” said Waudiwala, whose professors have been flexible when his duty schedule has conflicted with class times. “You cannot go wrong with more schooling, whether you’re a cop or not. You can’t go wrong. It’s not going to hurt you, it’s going to help you, especially if you want to become a boss. I want to become a boss, so that’s another reason why I came back to finish up my degree.”
A 27-year veteran of CPD, Justice Studies Instructor Jackie Campbell knows the academic challenges faced by cops all too well. She returned to school to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice in 1989.
“I was working and trying to take care of my family, so Northeastern worked for me,” she said.
When Campbell arrived at Northeastern as a student, she wasn’t sure she wanted to become an officer, but she found two professors, Dragan Milovanovic and Shelley Bannister, who encouraged her to not only finish her bachelor’s degree and become an officer, but also to go on to earn her Juris Doctor from John Marshall Law School to be able to teach at Northeastern. Campbell has been an instructor at Northeastern since 1994 and is dedicated to helping her students understand what it takes to become an officer.
“At Northeastern you’re dealing with a lot of people who are trying to figure out what they’re doing with their life and how can they make the degree work for them,” Campbell said. “I kind of felt like I could be a testament, so to speak, of what you can actually do, and talk about the different experiences I had, so I can relate. I start each class that I teach saying, ‘I know exactly how you feel. I remember taking classes in the evening and sitting here and not having dinner.’ I can relate to students and know what they’re going through because I’ve been there.”
Campbell served CPD as an officer, sergeant, commanding officer of defensive tactics and control tactics, and lieutenant until she retired from CPD in 2016.
“When I came on the job, all you needed was a high school diploma or the equivalency, GED,” Campbell said. “Being able to get the university knowledge and being able to interact with different people and learn substance behind law and order, the ‘why,’ makes a more thought-provoking officer. In the police academy they give you orders and rules and you follow them. I think universities, degrees help you to understand the ‘why’ behind what you’re doing, not just taking it and saying, ‘It’s right because the law says it’s right.’”
Every year, Campbell has had at least one officer in her Northeastern classes, and she sees the positive difference their education makes when they serve in their communities. She is proud of the fact that her classroom is a place where officers can speak from their training to give different perspectives, especially when discussing controversial cases.
Campbell hopes there will be more opportunities for Northeastern students to connect with CPD to better understand the application process so they don’t get discouraged. She has seen applicants—particularly minority applicants—consider giving up on their application if something potentially negative appears in a background check because they don’t know there is an appeal process. She believes that if an applicant has the tools to create a successful application and complete the requirements to become an officer, it will be worth it.
“It’s a great job,” Campbell said. “You can make an honest living. You can help the community, and it makes you stand for something.”
As a Northeastern alumnus (B.A. ’88 Board of Governors) and CPD’s 19th District Commander, Marc Buslik is a proponent of officers earning four-year degrees to improve their communication skills.
“The real advantage of having a four-year degree is not in the subject matter itself,” Buslik said. “Certainly, a Criminal Justice or related field degree gives you some idea of the system, but the real advantage is the experience of being in a classroom, of sharing with people who are not like you, learning how to communicate both orally and in writing, and having yourself challenged both intellectually and socially so that you come out of that with a much better view of the world.”
Buslik agrees with his friend Escalante that Northeastern provides an attractive, affordable opportunity to CPD officers who can interact with people whose ideas may differ from what they are used to on the beat.
“Sitting in a police station with people who are just like you, you’re cheating yourself,” said Buslik, who teaches criminology at UIC. “You’re missing out on part of your education. It really is important to talk to people who have different viewpoints, to hear different viewpoints. You may not agree, but you need to hear it. You cannot make a good argument unless you know what the other side has to say. Being on a university campus, particularly one as diverse as Northeastern, is good not just for the intellect, but it’s good for the soul. It’s good for a person, as a human.”
Buslik will retire from CPD when he turns 63 in May. He hopes he has set an example for his colleagues to be better to themselves and learn how to care about the things that really matter.
“Starting and finishing at Northeastern is an excellent way to achieve what will make you a better person and a better police officer as a result,” he said.