Jena West was intrigued by the biology and forensics aspect of the "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" television show franchise while growing up as a standout softball player in Missouri City, Texas.
When she enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice program at the University of Houston-Victoria and met Dr. Keith Akins, a former investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League, she knew what career path to take.
"I thought about going into the justice system, and I always had an interest in learning about it," West said. "When I took the [CRIJ 1301:] Introduction to Criminal Justice course with Dr. Akins and learned more about what he had done in his career, it solidified my desire to do something like that."
West, the first person in her immediate family to earn a college degree, knocked it out of the park.
She has been the public health emergency preparedness coordinator and strategic national stockpile coordinator for Victoria County for three and a half years after also graduating with a master's degree in homeland security from UHV in 2015.
"I was looking into going into law enforcement," she said. "But looking down range at getting as much education as I wanted to get, I started thinking otherwise, about maybe doing homeland security and higher-level justice system career avenues.
"I wasn't sure where, but I knew I wanted to do something in that field, somehow. I wanted a response-level type of career. Now, I'm here."
In addition to playing softball for the Jaguars while attending the hybrid undergraduate degree program, West worked as a student recruiter for UHV for nearly three years while earning the master's degree.
"I did a lot of the outreach with high school students coming into the university," she said. "I tried to help students understand what the university had to offer. It was a cool job. It definitely gets you out of your comfort zone if you aren't used to those kinds of things. It was an experience."
After graduating from Elkins High School in Missouri City, Texas, West played softball for two seasons and was a team captain at Galveston College, where she graduated with an associate degree in 2011. She was excited to continue her playing career at the next level.
"I went to play softball, but UHV is also one of the most cost-effective four-year universities in the state of Texas," she said. "Plus, I had some teammates and former classmates who had gone to UHV before me and really liked the experience and the environment. I also enjoyed the environment and the smaller class sizes."
The courses that focused on statistics were West's favorites in the BS in Criminal Justice program curriculum.
"Going over the recidivism of the justice system and things of that nature was pretty interesting," she said. "You always think about trying to rehabilitate someone who has gone into the prison system, or what the impacts are of them not completing a course while they're in the rehabilitative system."
West believes both the bachelor's and master's degree programs at UHV prepared her well in more ways than one for a complex real-world career.
"Any education seems to open a lot of doors for you," she said. "I definitely liked the networking I got out of it. After playing softball, people remember me to this day.
"You also meet all kinds of people while working on degrees. I had an internship at the district attorney's office one of my semesters, and I still see those people to this day."
West knows that UHV laid a strong foundation for her career by providing her with an education, work experience and several opportunities to lead.
"I really got to relish the feeling of being at graduation because I was student government president my senior year," she said. "It was pretty cool."
Life is still moving quite quickly for West. She plans to enroll in a Doctor of Education in emergency management program, most likely at Oklahoma State University.
She started a postgraduate degree program in educational leadership at Lamar University in 2016 before deciding to switch gears. The bases are loaded for her again.
"Hopefully, I am on my way to my ultimate career goal," West said. "I am currently applying for a deputy emergency management coordinator position here in Victoria County. We'll see how it goes. Fingers crossed."
West, who still plays recreational softball once a week and enjoys reading, is glad she attended UHV — and especially that she met Dr. Akins in the bachelor's degree program, which she has recommended as a way to have multiple career options.
"I would say to definitely keep an open mind going into the program," she said. "There are so many different avenues with going into criminal justice. You're not just going to be a cop. You're not just going to be in law enforcement.
"You can do things like emergency management, emergency preparedness, disaster preparedness or working in the prison system. You have no idea the expanse of things you can find yourself doing. The bachelor's degree program at UHV was an invaluable experience."
Learn more about the UHV online BS in Criminal Justice program.
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