Nearly two dozen Master’s participants graduate after mostly virtual program

Following 18 months of working almost exclusively online, 22 homeland security professionals graduated with a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from Center for Homeland Defense and Security during the Naval Postgraduate School’s graduation ceremony at King Auditorium on Sept. 24.

Master’s Program award winners, from left: Cassie Johnson, Robert Root, Elvis Chan, and Katie Riesner.

Beginning in March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions were starting to take hold, the Master’s Program cohort 2001/02 was forced to complete essentially all of their studies in a virtual format.

The 22 graduates who completed the program out of the 32 who started met in person for the first time on the Wednesday before graduation, as well as enjoying a group dinner on the Thursday before the graduation ceremony.

Of the 32 people who started the Master’s cohort, eight deferred admissions before it began due to unanticipated Covid-19 work-related responsibilities, two people had to suspend their enrollment due to work issues, and two people who suspended their enrollment from previous cohorts joined the Master’s 2001/02 cohort.

Graduate Cassie Johnson, Operational Support Director for the Scottsdale, AZ Police Department, noted that the cohort had its in-person orientation and its graduation within just a few days, underscoring the unique nature of the cohort’s learning experience.

CHDS Master’s Program participants march into graduation ceremony at King Auditorium.

Master’s Program senior lecturer, academic associate and thesis advisor Dr. Carolyn Halladay said the cohort did an outstanding job of adjusting to virtual learning.

“They understood early on that a large part (of the program) would be virtual and they made it work,” Halladay said, noting that many participants met in smaller groups outside the formal program sessions, and then “managed to wrangle some extra (in-person) time” at the end of the program. “It was super-impressive. There was a fair bit of lemonade made.”

Halladay said the cohort actually helped CHDS Master’s Program faculty “build and revise our approach (to virtual learning).”

Johnson, who was named with Portland Fire and Rescue Fire Captain Robert Root as the Mark Carr Esprit De Corps Award recipients, said the cohort developed a “strong bond; collectively, we tried new things.”

Root said the cohort was a “really great group of people” that enjoyed occasional “virtual happy hours” together during the 18-month program.

Described as the “mama and the papa” of the cohort, Johnson and Root both expressed surprise at winning the award, which is voted on by the cohort and recognizes a classmate who “best portrays a team player, supports a collaborative learning environment, and continually encourages his/her classmates to achieve success while juggling their own personal academic and professional challenges,” and both called it an honor.

CHDS Master’s Program cohort 2001/02.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Elvis Chan was named the Butch Straub Award winner, named after one of CHDS’ founders and given based on a combination of grades, thesis and classroom leadership.

A cyberterrorism expert who was promoted within the Bureau during the program, Chan said he had no idea why he was chosen for the award, surmising that he was perhaps the “most enthusiastic” and the program was “built for my skillset” as an FBI agent.

Chan was chosen as a guest speaker addressing cybersecurity for a CHDS Executive Leaders Program session earlier this year and will be speaking to the CHDS Emergence Program in January.

Chan said the Master’s program was “very challenging” but worth the effort, and noted that the cohort “really came together” despite the challenges of distance learning.

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Unit Chief Katie Riesner was named the winner of the prestigious Outstanding Thesis Award for her thesis entitled, “A Different Surge on the Horizon: How Can the U.S. Government Improve Its Foresight Capacity to Anticipate and Manage Mass Migration Events.” 

Riesner said her thesis, which proposes using an analytical model to help predict future migration surges to the U.S. border and create a special unit to conduct that analysis as part of a Mass Migration Anticipation Center, said her motivation was years of watching “a sea of families” with young children make the dangerous trek to this country.

“I wanted to understand what motivates people to take kids across a desert,” she said. “We have an obligation to treat migrants humanely.”

If the U.S. could more accurately anticipate migration surges, Riesner said it should be able to handle the humanitarian, financial and security crises caused by mass migration, and “get ahead of it.”

CHDS’ Craig Coon, Eric Johnsen and Jodi Stiles were named the Impact Award winners given to outstanding faculty and staff.

In a nod to the ongoing pandemic restrictions, the graduation ceremony was considerably smaller than usual because family and friends were unable to participate.

Master’s Program cohort 2001/02 (graduated):

Matthew Austin – Executive Officer, USCG Air Station / Sector Field Office Port Angeles, WA
Elvis Chan – Assistant Special Agent in Charge, FBI
Thaddeus Espy – Major, Tulsa, OK Police Department
Richard Fields – Commander – Supply and Maintenance Division, Los Angeles, CA Fire Department
Benjamin Greer – Emergency Management Coordinator/Instructor II, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES)
Marlon Heron – Command Center Systems Asset Line Manager, U.S. Coast Guard
Chad Houck – Chief Deputy Secretary of State, Idaho Secretary of State
Marcus Joachim – Unit Chief, Financial Crimes Section, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Cassie Johnson – Operational Support Director, Scottsdale, AZ Police Department
Emily Kaster – Deputy Director, Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency
Justin Kates – Director of Emergency Management, City of Nashua, NH
Emmanuel Kwo – Lieutenant, New York City, NY Police Department
Stephan Lopez Jr. – Section Chief- Geospatial Intelligence & Analytics, Dallas, TX Fire-Rescue Department
Heather Marques – Fire Captain/Paramedic, Alameda County, CA Fire Department
Ron Mattson – IIR Production Ops Chief, U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Emily Pelliccia – Deputy Chief, Emergency Management, City of Charlottesville, SC
Cathy Richardson – Assistant Chief Counsel, DHS/ICE
Katie Riesner – Unit Chief, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations
Robert Root – Fire Captain, Portland, OR Fire and Rescue
Christopher Thomas – Fire Captain, Yonkers Fire Department
Rena Wheeler – Recruitment Officer, Captain, Indianapolis, IN Fire Department
Christopher Whiting – Sergeant – Counterterrorism Coordinator, Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office New Jersey

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment |, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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