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Part of Something Bigger

UVU Criminal Justice Department celebrates 25 years of service and student success

By Alex Kennington | Photography by

The first thing you see when you step into Bobbi Kassel’s office is her giant bulletin board. Decorated with patches from police departments all over the country, it represents just a fraction of the number of students she has impacted during her time at Utah Valley University, where she now serves as chair of the Criminal Justice Department.

“When I started advising, I got this bulletin board because a couple of students gave me a patch from wherever they got a job after graduation,” Kassel says. “This is a collection of my students and where they have gone to work. I just collected those when I was an advisor, but every once in a while I still get a package in the mail that has a letter and a patch.”

Kassel’s story is unique. She received her associate degree in administrative service and then started her part-time job in the School of Business in 1993, when UVU was known as Utah Valley Community College. In 1995 she accepted a full-time position with the Criminal Justice Department. Eventually, she decided to take advantage of one of her work benefits — she didn’t have to pay tuition to take classes.

“That was a big incentive for me to continue to go to school,” she explains. “I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in 2002, so in total it was about seven years that I was working and taking classes here and there. During that time, I moved into an academic advisor position.”

Once Kassel took a victimology class for the first time, she was hooked. She ended up deciding to put her plans to become a police officer to the side once she started having children, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to help those in the line of duty.

“I decided if I couldn’t be a police officer, I at least wanted to work with police officers,” she says. “As we developed our criminal justice program at UVU, we had many officers coming back to get degrees, so I was still able to associate with them. We also had officers teaching for us, so I was involved with them a little differently. Then when I took the victimology class, that really piqued my interest in helping people.”

Once she earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Kassel received a master’s degree from the University of Utah in educational psychology while continuing to work for UVU. “My department chair, Brent Bullock, let me start teaching a victimology class,” she says. “Victimology had been my absolute favorite since I took the class. I got involved advocating for sexual assault victims with the Utah County Rape Crisis Team. My passion for victim advocacy created interest among criminal justice students. That’s how I filled a niche in the department when I moved to being full-time faculty.”

Now, 26 years after receiving her first degree at UVU, Kassel is the chair of the department where she initially worked as a secretary.

“From administrative assistant to academic advisor to adjunct faculty to full-time faculty to department chair in the same department? I don’t know that that’s ever happened,” Kassel says. “I think it helps me understand the staff within my department and their roles and responsibilities because I’ve done those jobs. I feel like the stars aligned for me during my time here at UVU.”

With the help of other faculty members, Kassel works to make the Criminal Justice Department a place where all students can succeed. Faculty member Matt Duffin, who previously served as department chair, helped jump-start this process.

“One of the things I did when I was department chair was start teaching concurrent enrollment classes,” Duffin says. “We started by teaching our core courses — we’d teach them all through a broadcast. Then a bunch of high schools started getting involved through this distance education format. At first I only had three or four students, but now I have 60 to 70 students taking our concurrent enrollment classes each semester.”

These concurrent enrollment classes support UVU’s mission to create stackable degrees throughout its programs.

“We were asked to generate a certificate of proficiency for concurrent enrollment students. In addition to that, we have an associate degree. There’s another certificate for people who pass through the police academy. We have two associate degrees that build into the bachelor’s degree,” Duffin explains.

Kassel and Duffin worked together to create an online option for students who were already working full time. Now, those looking to get a criminal justice degree can do it through face-to-face classes, online classes, or a hybrid of the two.

“It was hard for students to get classes when their work schedule would change or they’d have to wait a semester or two for the class to be offered at the right time,” Duffin says. “Bobbi and I worked with Marcy Hehnly to develop the online program. It’s really made a difference for our students.”

“Exceptional care is a core value at UVU, and I see my faculty practicing that every single day. Students in the program feel like they're a part of something bigger.”

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Students who pursue criminal justice at UVU don’t leave with any ordinary experience. The program cultivates hands-on opportunities for students to succeed. Those enrolled in Kassel’s victimology class participate in service projects each semester to help the community.

“I think students get a lot of joy and growth in the service they do for their community,” she says.

One recent instance Kassel mentions is a collaboration between UVU’s Criminal Justice Department and the American Fork Police Department. The police chief, Darren Falslev, is a UVU alumnus and current adjunct faculty member. Falslev contacted Kassel after a number of domestic violence incidents in his city, and together they came up with the idea of creating a series of informational videos about domestic violence, using grant money from UVU’s College of Health and Public Service.

“Some people in that situation don’t want to call the police department,” Kassel says, “so we wanted to make videos that would offer the same information we would offer if they called us.” Three videos in the series have been released so far, and they’re already having a positive effect in the community.

“One of my students who was a victim of domestic violence appears in the videos and tells her story,” Kassel says. “She was phenomenal, and I know the project really impacted her. Even after doing the video, she contacted me and said, ‘I want to do more and share my story more — how do I get more involved?’”

Kassel’s journey through the ranks of the Criminal Justice Department is one that represents possibilities for all UVU students. The creation of stackable degrees offered her opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Now, she works hard to pay it forward.

“There are a lot of great opportunities for our students, and they can start even smaller than I did and move up,” Kassel says. “Now our college even has a master’s degree in public service. It’s really awesome just to watch students start in careers and get promoted with more education.”

One example of that student success is Gregory Petersen, who graduated from UVU in 2004. Petersen says he didn’t do great in high school and only went to college because of the pressure others put on him. Despite this, he found a passion for criminal justice and eventually earned a master’s degree.

“The professors who worked in the field made the biggest difference for me,” Petersen says. “We had a great mix of professors who had a wide array of experience within the criminal justice system, and they exposed me to a lot of career options.”

Over the past 25 years, the department has grown from one or two classes to an associate degree to a bachelor’s degree. Primarily responsible for this growth was former Department Chair Brent Bullock, who was key in establishing the program when it first started.

“I taught the very first class, Introduction to Criminal Justice, and there were five students who signed up for the semester,” Bullock says. “Now we offer entire criminal justice degrees.”

Bullock says he worked hard to see the program built from the ground up. “I’m very proud of having had a small part in establishing and helping grow the Criminal Justice Department,” he says. This year, as the department celebrates its 25th anniversary, Kassel expresses her hopes for the future of the program.

“Exceptional care is a core value at UVU, and I see my faculty practicing that every single day,” she says. “Students in the program feel like they’re a part of something bigger.”