SUNY Oswego has begun transitioning its public justice major to criminal justice, a move that modernizes the program, boosts its rigor in alignment with national standards and makes its name more recognizable to graduate schools and employers.

New students this fall had the option to enter SUNY Oswego as criminal justice majors, while existing majors could switch to criminal justice or opt to finish their college years in public justice. Those new to the discipline in the spring semester will declare a criminal justice major.

The SUNY system and the state Education Department approved the sweeping updates in curriculum. The college also has applied to rename the department as criminal justice.

Dr. Roger Guy, chair of the department, said criminal justice is far from just a name change. Students have to take an additional nine credit hours' worth of courses, some of them new and all of them subject to revisions and updates following a lengthy review of the nearly four-decades-old public justice curriculum.

"The rigor also comes in with the research component," Guy said. Core courses include "Research Methods in Criminal Justice," "Data Analysis" and "Seminar in Criminal Justice." Introductory courses in policing, corrections and criminal justice are followed up with those in "American Criminal Courts and Judicial Processes" and "Crime Theories and Victimization"

Elective courses reflect the broad range of fields that rely on today's criminal justice graduates: forensic anthropology, criminalistics chemistry, family systems, counseling, ethics and the law, program planning and evaluation, community policing and organized crime law enforcement, to name a few.

"To me, it's reminiscent of a bachelor of science degree in a discipline," said Guy. "Criminal justice leads to a bachelor of arts degree, but it's a more intense program."

Popular program 

Seniors Elisa Descartes and Michaela Williams both did research projects with criminal justice faculty member Dr. Margaret Schmuhl this semester. Both students and Schmuhl presented their scholarly projects at the American Society of Criminology annual meeting in Atlanta, with faculty and students across the country.

Descartes, finishing up by May in the public justice curriculum, said courses such as research methods are challenging but provide early lessons on what to expect in graduate school. She plans to apply to Northeastern University, University of Delaware and possibly University of Tennessee for a Ph.D. program in criminal justice. Descartes said she thinks the updated SUNY Oswego justice program "will get lots more students excited about criminal justice." 

Williams, who majors in human development and minors in public justice, has her eye on a mental health counseling graduate program -- possibly SUNY Oswego's -- and said she chose her minor to move toward working with youths enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

The public justice program has been one of SUNY Oswego's most popular ones, with about 400 majors and minors. During the transitional years, the department has to make sure it timely covers all core courses for students finishing in public justice and those beginning criminal justice, Guy said, but the challenges of modernizing the discipline are worth it.

Seniors Ryan Mayer and Courtney Baxter, serving as peer advisors for the department, have helped explain to other students the transition from public justice to criminal justice.

"Looking at it as a future alum, I'm glad to see the school staying up to date," said Mayer, who has worked as a first responder. He completed his capstone project for public justice by showing the increased connection of law enforcement officers and medical responders in an era where SWAT teams need to be prepared to roll to sometimes horrific crime scenes.

Mayer and Baxter, friends since freshman year, both have applied to Port Authority Police in New York. They both credit internships with helping convince them they're headed where they want to go. Mayer interned with the Oswego County Sheriff's Department, while Baxter spent a recent summer working with the Port Jervis Police Department.

"I got to go on a lot of ride-alongs," Baxter said. "It was good to see officers make arrests and how they process suspects." 

Internships endorsed

While the newly revised program does not require an internship coupled with a public justice course, other students and Guy recommended that all criminal justice majors strongly consider credit-bearing internships through their academic advisor and the college's Experiential Courses and Engaged Learning (EXCEL) Office.

"We expect students to approach us," Guy said. "From the student's perspective, there needs to be an impetus there."

Senior public justice major Nicole Turlington praised the Oswego City Police Department for the "huge influence" its officers had this semester on her decision to go into law enforcement.

"Coming to this internship made me realize 100 percent what I wanted to do," said Turlington, who has taken the test to become a New York state park police officer. "The city police officers helped me with life stuff, too, like how to take a (law enforcement) test. They are really good mentors. I've made connections that will help me the rest of my career. I would strongly suggest people do an internship."

Mailie Velazquez, a senior public justice major who transferred to SUNY Oswego starting her junior year, was equally enthusiastic about her internship with Rucynski Coleman Law Office in Oswego, calling it "the most valuable experience I've had so far in college."

"I met court clerks and attorneys and others who really opened my eyes and let me know what to expect in the courts and in law school," said Velazquez, who aims for a career as a criminal defense attorney or a prosecutor. "I want to help people, but also make an impact."

For more information on the criminal justice program or on minors in criminal justice, forensic science and interdisciplinary pre-law, visit the department website or call 315-312-4121.