Twenty-nine Students Earn Master’s Degree in Security Studies from CHDS

Members of the 1905/1906 cohort celebrated their graduation in a virtual format.

The Naval Postgraduate School’s (NPS) Winter Quarter Graduation Ceremony on March 26 included 29 homeland security professionals who completed a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS). NPS conducted the graduation ceremony in a virtual format instead of the traditional celebration on campus with family and friends in King Auditorium. Despite the lack of pomp and circumstance, it feels like an appropriate way to honor the CHDS master’s graduates who completed an 18-month long educational journey while transitioning to a virtual learning environment and adapting to a global pandemic. Captain Stephen Espinoza of the Emergency Service Unit at the New York City Police Department (NYPD) credited the group’s resolve as a key to their success. “Our cohort consisted of dedicated, intelligent, and motivated practitioners ready to respond to any national threat. Without exaggeration, I felt like I was in the company of superheroes.” The master’s degree program provides an innovative, multi-disciplinary curriculum to help homeland security professionals develop policies, strategies, plans, and programs that prevent terrorist attacks and reduce America’s vulnerability to catastrophic events. NPS produced a special video to honor the achievements of this latest cadre of graduates, including comments from students and faculty and highlights congratulatory messages from NPS President Ann E. Rondeau, NPS Dean of Students Capt. Markus J. Gudmundsson, Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, Director for Strategy, Plans and Policy on the Joint Staff, and other senior leaders.

During the virtual graduation ceremony, CHDS Director Glen Woodbury noted the significance of completing the master’s degree program during such extenuating circumstances: “These students overcame the transition to a remote learning environment while serving on the front lines of the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are proud of their tremendous accomplishments and look forward to their contributions to the homeland security enterprise for years to come. They reflect the professionalism, dedication, and resiliency our nation deserves.”

This CHDS master’s cohort began their journey in September of 2019 and overcame the issues created by COVID-19 to succeed and earn a Master of Arts in Security Studies while oftentimes managing situations affected by the pandemic. Captain Christopher Zam at the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) noted some of the obstacles his classmates were able to overcome: “Even though the CHDS experience was severely impacted by COVID-19, the professors went to work quickly to ensure that we continued to receive first-rate instruction. The CHDS staff could not have been more supportive. Lines of communication remained open, and the staff worked diligently to adapt to the emerging Zoom world of education. Despite having met only twice for IR sessions, the cohort bonds remained strong throughout our journey. The relationships forged in just a handful of weeks at the NPS campus proved to be stronger than the COVID forces that were pulling us apart.”

Eric Baker, Intelligence Systems Analyst at the Texas Department of Public Safety, agreed their success was due to collective efforts: “I am very appreciative of the flexibility of the staff and instructors at the Center. We were the first cohort to go through a virtual IR, and I believe the instructors and staff had the weekend before to prepare for a completely new instruction method. When travel restrictions were initially discussed, we were all concerned about the program’s impact and how we would be able to move forward. Everyone at the Center was able to pull together and build a virtual environment that allowed us to keep track of our expected deadlines—this is not a small feat!”

Martin Birkenfeld, Jr. was presented with the Curtis “Butch” Straub Achievement Award.

The cohort’s overall composition is a reflection of the collaborative mission that homeland security entails, with professionals from the fields of emergency management, immigration, law enforcement, fire service, homeland security, local and state government, military, and public health. Martin Birkenfeld, Jr., Chief of Police for the City of Amarillo, TX, noted the diversity of accomplished professionals in the program: “One of the best parts of this program was getting to meet so many amazing people from around the country—both instructors and peers. My first thought upon arrival in Monterey was I’m in the wrong program because my classmates were all such amazing and intelligent people. I have learned so much from my classmates and our instructors. I am a much better writer, and my presentation skills have vastly improved, as has my confidence.” Captain Zam also credited his instructors and classmates for pushing the group to dig deeper, “Before attending CHDS, my view of homeland security was narrow and myopic. Dr. Chris Bellavita, Dr. Lauren Fernandez, Dr. Nadav Morag, and the rest of the CHDS instructors did an outstanding job of stripping away our preconceived notions of what it means to be a homeland security practitioner. Through the program, our cohort members learned how to challenge our own biases, enhance our critical thinking skills, and vastly improve our analyses of complex homeland security issues.”

Elisabeth Yerkes and Darin Hanson received the Mark Carr Esprit De Corps Award.

The group has a wide representation of agencies that collaborate across multiple levels to protect the Homefront: from the local level (Bakersfield Police Department, City of Amarillo Police Department, DC Metropolitan Police Department, FDNY, Indianapolis Fire Department, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue, Modesto Police Department, Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, NYPD) to the state level (Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, California Highway Patrol, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Department of Public Safety, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Massachusetts State Police, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Department of Public Safety) to the federal level (Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). The inclusion of professionals across different levels of homeland security is intentional. It allows participants to better understand the issues by engaging with counterparts in other regions or fields. Captain Zam explained how the program structure provided unique insight: “I learned that there are countless areas of overlap between homeland security sectors and the multitude of agencies that comprise DHS. This program was well-rounded in that it taught me to take the lead on some projects and pass the ball on others. Our cohort collaborated in groups as small as two and as large as 32 on various projects that strengthened our understanding of local, national, and global challenges impacting today’s homeland security landscape. I believe that the program’s rewards are commensurate with the effort exerted, and I applaud my fellow cohort members for pushing me to meet the measure of their efforts. The CHDS program was both challenging and rewarding in unexpected ways, and I cannot recommend it enough.”

During the rigorous 18-month program, CHDS participants develop skills in critical thinking, leadership, and policy. “My favorite part of the program was fellow cohort members and the instructors challenging my ideas in a way that forced me to strengthen and defend my arguments,” explained Captain Espinoza. “When making a claim, Dr. Bellavita often asked, ‘Why should I believe you?’ Doing so revealed that the CHDS environment was unaccepting of unsupported claims and uninformed opinions. More importantly, however, his questions invited us to explain why we believed our claims were factual. We often had the facts to defend our arguments but were not familiar with others challenging us to provide them. His discussions were like mental duels or practice sessions presenting well-supported, evidence-based arguments that can withstand scrutiny and critique. Without question, I know these lessons benefitted us all.” Each graduate completes a thesis on a current issue facing his or her jurisdiction. The theses topics from this cohort focus on key homeland security issues such as artificial intelligence, cybercrime, disaster response, disinformation campaigns, election security, extremist threats in the correctional system, human trafficking, immigration safeguards, opioid abuse prevention, policing reforms, threat assessment tactics, tracking potential active shooters, and urban search & rescue strategy. Espinoza’s thesis focuses on the impact that police-related civilian deaths have on policing legitimacy. “Using five police departments that experienced civilian fatalities and subsequent legitimacy challenges, evidenced either by retaliatory violence targeting police or large-scale civil disorder, I examined what each agency’s legitimacy-developing policy implementation looked like before and in response to each death. My goal was to provide police leaders with recommendations to strengthen their legitimacy-building policies, enhance their legitimacy in the community, and potentially mitigate the fallout from a future civilian fatality through increased legitimacy.”

Jonathan Graham (left) and Brian Hollan (right) received the Outstanding Thesis Award.

Many of the past master’s theses have translated directly into policy and practice. The theses from this master’s cohort (1905/1906) will be available on the Homeland Security Digital Library (HSDL) once they are fully approved for public consumption. Eric Baker described how his thesis research would help develop actionable strategies: “Another portion of the program I enjoyed was the exposure to new technologies and how they can be applied to homeland security. Part of my agency’s role is to maintain awareness of new technology trends, and it was refreshing to see cutting-edge technologies discussed through the HS lens. My thesis focuses on using artificial intelligence (AI) in the law enforcement domain and discusses many of the challenges with the technology. AI has a lot of applications in law enforcement. Still, we may be setting ourselves up for failure if we don’t consider and plan for its shortcomings, especially if these shortcomings can negatively impact the people we serve.”

Captain Zam summarized his overall experience in the master’s degree program: “This program is outstanding, and every participant will return to their home agencies with new tools and abilities that could not have been developed without the expertise, encouragement, and support of the entire CHDS staff. I have expanded my professional network and developed friendships that will last a lifetime.”


In conjunction with their successful completion of the program, select CHDS students and faculty were honored with leadership and academic awards.

  • Outstanding Thesis Award: Jonathan Graham (1905) for his thesis titled “Strategic Communications and the Department of Homeland Security: Immigration Policies, Mixed Messaging, and Information Fratricide” and Brian Hollan (1906) for his thesis “Policing for the Twenty-Second Century: A Complexity Theory-Based Approach.” The honor is based on overall academic rigor, quality of the literature review, impact of the study on homeland security strategy and future research implications, quality of analysis and conclusions, quality of organization, writing, and overall presentation of the thesis.
  • Curtis “Butch” Straub Achievement Award: Martin Birkenfeld, Jr., Chief of Police – City of Amarillo, TX. The award is based on grades, thesis, and classroom leadership. It is presented in honor and memory of one of CHDS’ founders. “When I found out that I was selected for the Straub Award, I was in disbelief because so many of my classmates are incredible people who I feel are deserving of recognition,” said Chief Birkenfeld. “I have to give credit to my cohort for keeping me motivated and helping me through the struggles. The experience at CHDS and NPS has been life-changing.”
  • The Mark Carr Esprit De Corps Award: Elisabeth Yerkes, Associate General Counsel at Florida Department of Law Enforcement, (1905) and Darin Hanson, Critical Infrastructure/Key Resources Program and Security Manager at North Dakota Department of Emergency Services (1906). This award recognizes students whose actions instilled, sustained, and created a spirit of unity and pride within the cohort. The award is named in honor of a former CHDS student who passed away in August 2014.
  • Impact Award: Kyle Matthews, Operations Coordinator. This award is bestowed upon a member of the CHDS faculty or staff who significantly contributed to and impacted the cohort.