Pure Genius

Training tomorrow's homeland security pros

Posting in Design

The head of a homeland security program tries to teach students that it's not all about wielding weapons and stopping shoe-bombers.

Terrorism. Tornadoes. Cyber-crimes.

These, among many other disasters, are jobs for our homeland security experts. And with all the jobs to be filled, colleges and universities are moving full speed ahead to develop undergraduate and graduate programs in homeland security—covering topics such as terrorism studies, emergency management, counterintelligence and transportation.

Homeland security is still an emergent field. It’s not yet accredited, so pretty much any school out there can call itself a homeland security program (Homeland Security and Defense Education Consortium Association is awaiting designation as the accrediting body). But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., the authority in aviation education, already has somewhat of a head start in this field. I spoke recently to Jim Ramsay, coordinator of Riddle’s four-year-old homeland security program.

Are students coming specifically to study homeland security?

A few years ago I’d run around trying to convince students to change majors to this. Now, people are keen on it. Next year, my daughter is coming here to study Homeland Security and Spanish. She’s not going to put on Kevlar and wander around the U.S.-Mexican border. She’s very analytical, policy-oriented, administrative. These are very service-oriented students.

What are some myths about undergraduate training in homeland security?

I use a lot of my energy to demystify the field. You want kids coming, filled with mystery and aspiration, but the reality is that people get impressions and ideas about what they want to do. People see the Christmas day bombing attempt and react to it. I’m not going to teach you to wield weapons in my program. We have to manage our image as to what our program is about. Just like the vast majority of military are not on the front lines; we don’t hear about the eight-tenths of the personnel behind the scenes. Homeland security is the same thing. There are a lot of people behind the scenes. So we try to ground [students’] perceptions in reality.

How much does aviation come up in homeland security classes?

It comes up often, and it gets headlines. Because there’s nothing more spectacular than a plane explosion. And there’s nothing more vulnerable than sitting in coach at 35,000 feet and not being able to do anything. And the aftermath of 9/11 taught us that our economy needs aviation. We want to feel secure, but as you maximize security, you maximize inconvenience. If we create massive security lines to check everybody three times, nobody will want to fly. We already don’t want to take our shoes off, and we only do that because of one hack with explosives in his shoe.

Since you’re an aeronautical university, do you assume your students want to work in the aviation sector of homeland security?

When it comes to planes, we are the national experts on how to build them and how to fly them, and because the bad guys used planes on 9/11, we should know something about aviation security. All four military services fly, Customs flies, CIA flies, FBI flies and Coast Guard flies, so there are jobs out there. However, we are not an aviation security program, we are a homeland security program. I’m trying to teach undergrads to be well-prepared generalists. I’ve got some students who want to be commercial aviators, some who want to get into medicine or law. There’s a lot of diversity in our student body. I gotta tell you, this is one cool field.

How can you make sure you’re not training bad guys?

We don’t want to train bad guys. If you’re a foreign national coming here, you have a security vetting. But I don’t do extra screening. We’re not teaching any state secrets here. We don’t do extra screening for medicine or chemical engineering--could you do more damage in engineering or medicine, or a BS in homeland security? At this stage, it doesn’t matter. The field will absorb all of my graduates, and the field will subject them to security clearances.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure