By Karen Kelly
Photos by Justin Tang
When Akshay Sharma enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice, he had visions of becoming a police officer.
But as he learned more about the psychological, sociological and legal elements in the field, his career plans changed.
“I realized there was so much more to criminology than crime and policing,” recalls Sharma, who now works for Correctional Service Canada as well as a front-line worker at a shelter. “I began to think about our criminal justice system through a critical lens and better understand the implications on public safety and society at large.”
Sharma is one of thousands of students who have graduated from the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice. ICCJ, as it’s called, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its Bachelor of Arts degree this month.
Many students, like Akshay, start out with a narrow view of what criminology and criminal justice entails—often bolstered by the thriving genre of crime shows. But by the time they graduate, they’ve been exposed to critical perspectives from the point of view of law, psychology, sociology and criminology itself.
The success of the program is reflected in their career paths: alumni are thriving in careers at all levels of government, in law firms, courthouses, parole boards, social services, police services and much more.
The institute’s director, Professor Evelyn Maeder, says many criminology students enroll because they feel a call to serve their community.
“Fundamentally, our students want to help. They’re looking for a way to be involved on the front lines with victims and offenders. That’s why they come to us,” explains Maeder, who joined the institute in 2008. “Teaching them to think critically about criminalization and justice will help them help others.”
For instance, when asked if carceral approaches prevent crime, Maeder finds first-year students often have strong opinions. But by third year, “you can see them getting critical, asking questions about the status quo and pushing back. They bring that critical thinking into the criminal justice system.”
The close-knit institute includes six faculty members: Evelyn Maeder, Nicolas Carrier, Lara Karaian, Jeffrey Monaghan, Danette Nearing-Guibord and Madalena Santos.
It also relies on courses taught within the psychology, sociology and law departments, which distinguishes it from other programs of criminology in Canada. Nicolas Carrier says this interdisciplinary focus is only a partial vision of what makes Carleton’s criminology program different.
“We focus on the uses of criminal law and on the ways in which incidents, individuals and conditions are deemed suspicious, are surveilled, judged, punished and controlled,” explains Carrier, who joined ICCJ in 2008. “We are devoted to show the ways in which the pursuit of ‘criminal justice’ involves the reproduction and reinforcement of numerous sets of (old and newer) forms of injustices.”
Small But Mighty
That’s how ICCJ administrator Marilyn Ginder describes the institute’s office. She works with undergraduate administrator Robin Dunbar to answer questions and guide criminology students through their four years at Carleton.
Each September, they encourage all criminology students to visit them in the office to go over the student’s schedule and ensure they are on track for graduation.
It sounds reasonable—until you realize how many students there are: 1600 of them.
“Our staff are the program,” says Evelyn Maeder unequivocally. “There’s no way to really encapsulate how much they do for our students that isn’t part of the job description. They just want them to succeed.”
ICCJ lore is full of stories of students who relied on the staff during early struggles, but went on to flourish. Others wouldn’t have graduated on time if the staff hadn’t flagged a missing course in their schedule.
“We understand the program is complicated: they take classes in law, psychology, sociology and criminology,” explains Ginder, who describes it as a quadruple major. “We tell them, ‘If you need help, talk to us. Don’t just give up.’”
Dunbar says it’s gratifying to help students succeed.
“During the first couple of weeks of the term, we have a line-up down the hallway, but I can’t imagine turning them away if they need something,” she says. “We have to be able to identify with them and offer the empathy they need at that moment. They’re our number-one priority.”
Learning through Experience
That same dedication to students is evident the moment you talk to Field Placement Coordinator Danette Nearing-Guibord.
She’s been placing students in workplaces around Ottawa for 11 years and has a list of more than 90 employers at her fingertips. In fact, some of her students from previous years are now hosting current criminology students.
“This year, we had 27 students placed with lawyers and eight at the crown attorney’s office,” says Nearing-Guibord, who teaches an academic seminar for field placement students. “Many more are at community agencies, correctional services, RCMP and the Department of Justice. So many hire our students at the end of their studies.”
Looking to the Future
It’s worth mentioning that when Criminology was first introduced to Carleton in 1977, it was just a concentration, under the Bachelor of Arts degree in Law, Sociology or Psychology.
But it was immediately popular, and remains the second most popular Bachelor of Arts degree on the Carleton campus, just after Psychology.
That constant growth has been a challenge for the program throughout its entire history on campus. Now, 20 years in, there is talk about strengthening the foundations, offering more core courses in criminology itself, and perhaps even introducing a master’s degree.
“We have amazing researchers: they edit top journals; author books; testify as experts,” Maeder points out. “We’re hoping to bring in more core courses so we can tie the experience together for students and share our perspectives as critical scholars.”
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