From Criminal Justice to Education Leadership, Single Mom Finds Path, Success at UVU

Pictures of woman laughing

No matter what Kari Dennis is doing, she wants to make a difference in someone’s life.

That includes the teenagers with criminal records she used to work with at Independence High School in Provo. It includes the students at Utah Valley University, where she earned a degree in criminal justice and now works. And most of all, it includes her three children who motivated her to obtain a degree.

“I tried to go back to school when I was first divorced 18 years ago,” Dennis says. “But I just didn’t have the help and support to take care of the kids that young. The timing just wasn’t right. But this time, it just all came together, like destiny. My kids were super supportive.”Woman Laughing in a chair

Working with juvenile offenders provided the impetus for her. Coworkers encouraged her to become a probation officer, which would allow Dennis to work more closely with individual teens. But those positions required a bachelor’s degree, and Dennis didn’t have one.

In 2013, Dennis met David Dominguez, a law professor at Brigham Young University, who brought a class of his students to Independence to observe. When Dominguez met Dennis and learned she was considering returning to school, he directed her to UVU assistant professor Bobbi Kassel, who now serves as the criminal justice department chair.

“That’s how I even got here — I had people guiding me,” Dennis says. “Bobbi was amazing.”

While learning from Kassel, assistant chair Melissa Noyes, and other UVU criminal justice faculty, Dennis realized that a degree in criminal justice could lead to far greater possibilities than becoming a juvenile probation officer. But she also had the opportunity to see some of her former Independence students in UVU’s halls — and not all of them had as much success as she did.

“When I wanted to quit, I had six little eyes looking at me. I finished because of them. I couldn’t quit. I may have wanted to, but I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t let that be their example.”

“Before the end of the semester, those students were gone — they weren’t here anymore,” Dennis says. “So I had reached out to a couple of them, and they just said it was too hard. And I realized these are the students who need to stay here.”

She continued her criminal justice classes, but during her junior year, Dennis took advantage of another opportunity that would shape her future by becoming a UVUSA senator and representing her college in student government. Initially, she believed she wouldn’t qualify for participation because working part time to support her children meant her free time was limited. But UVU faculty and staff encouraged her to stay involved.

“Through my involvement with student government, I learned about all these resources that UVU actually has for people,” Dennis says. “And that kind of turned into my passion. Yes, I finished my degree, but I wanted to work at UVU because I wanted to connect somehow with those students I saw in the halls, to keep them here.”

Participation in UVUSA helped Dennis pay for school while her parents helped with her children when she couldn’t be at home. For a period of time, the family had one child in elementary school, one in middle school, one in high school, and Dennis herself in college. They did homework together around the kitchen table and shared in each other’s successes and struggles.

“When I wanted to quit, I had six little eyes looking at me,” she says. “I finished because of them. I couldn’t quit. I may have wanted to, but I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t let that be their example.”

When Dennis completed her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2017, the juvenile probation industry was in the middle of a hiring freeze. But she wanted to put her newfound passion for higher education to work, accepting a position with UVU’s Career Development Center, then moving to the Center for Constitutional Studies while pursuing a master’s degree in higher education leadership.

“Had I not been in criminal justice, I wouldn’t have ever been a UVUSA senator, and I wouldn’t have ever made those connections,” Dennis says. “I just fell in love with what UVU is about. I fell in love with our mission, how there’s a place for everybody. Even as a nontraditional, single-mom old person, I can come to school and feel supported and meet amazing people along the way and be able to do something with my life and better my children’s lives. I guess I just found my calling.”