Campus Culture

Figuring It Out: Lessons From a Career before Academia

Prior to coming to BMCC, I spent almost 16 years as a New York City Police Officer. The transition wasn’t as much a rupture as might seem. Becoming a college professor was my goal when I began teaching criminal justice and policing in 2006. However, a change in careers after 16 years with one organization, and at the age of 41 wasn’t easy, especially when the two cultures are fun-house mirrors of each other – to add layers of complexity to the matter, my daughter was born four days into my first semester. But wait, there’s more. My first semester as full-time faculty I was taking graduate classes, including my bugaboo, quantitative analysis. Which began when? My first day at BMCC! Once I got a bit settled, I thought it a good idea to create an online class in policing since none existed. So, I enrolled in the multi-week E-learning workshop and successfully completed that as well. Here I am two years later, set to defend my dissertation with a two-year-old daughter, having seen all those challenges through.

So how did I do it?

Having previously been a police officer could not have prepared me more to succeed. Put aside any thoughts or issues you may have with the police, policing, or police officers, and what I will say is this: There is no career that prepares a person to be more self-reliant.


Allow me a moment.

In the college world there are “junior faculty”, equivalent in policing there are “new-jacks”, “rookies”, and “shiny badges”. In academia there’s a benevolence and collegiality that come with being faculty. In policing, there’s outright hostility, you’re lucky if you’re ignored. Senior police officers will try to make you to look like a fool, see if you’re weak or you’ll break. It’s as though the organization has dispatched their lions, and you’re a gazelle – any sign of weakness or breaking from the herd, you know what happens. This is not because policing is filled with bad people, I actually believe the opposite. What’s happening is you’re being conditioned into a world where it can be do-or-die, in actuality. Woe be onto the new-jack who is unsure, soft, or weak. There are labels for officers like that; “shaky”. Want to get a bad reputation? Ask a question, act uncertain, you will rue the day you took the job. What are they teaching? Not independence – no way – police culture abhors the independent actor, there’s even a pejorative for that, “one-way”, and if you’re labeled a shaky one-way cop, I would suggest looking for a new job. And quick.

So how does this relate to my new career?

The most highly valued attribute in policing isn’t power as some believe, it’s self-reliance, and nothing is more respected. As a contrast; in education we say “there are no stupid questions”. As a rookie police officer, all questions are viewed as stupid. In academia, meetings end with statements posed as questions, and questions posed as statements. In policing, meetings end with, “Any questions?” And I use the term “end with” quite literally because that’s how they end. Crickets follow. The message is this: No one cares about your problems or what you think. You’ve been given a task, figure out what needs to be done, and handle it.

Like I said, fun-house mirrors.

The real lesson is that you can only count on yourself. As a police officer you will be given these difficult assignments with ambiguous direction; there’s chaos, hostility, and sometimes violence around you, nothing works as it should, and no one is willing to help. But you’ll succeed, because you must. All those lessons from early on prepared you as it’s become embedded in your brain, and bones, and deep into your person, that which you’ll hear, feel, and experience over and over and over again.

“Hey kid, you’re a cop now. Figure it out”.

I haven’t been a police officer in over three years, but the lesson of self-reliance lives on. When I was faced with all those challenges early in my new career, I knew exactly what to do.

Figure it out. And that’s what I did.


6 Responses to Figuring It Out: Lessons From a Career before Academia

  1. Eliza November 28, 2018 at 10:40 am #

    An amazing story! Wishing you all the best with your defense!

  2. Hollis Glaser November 28, 2018 at 8:52 pm #

    I love the fun-house mirror imagery! Nice reflection, Jason.

    • Jason Ostrowe November 29, 2018 at 9:11 am #

      Thank you, Hollis. The two institutions are very similar in many respects, but with these exaggerated qualities. The visual just seemed to make sense, and I hope it connected for the audience.

  3. Jason Ostrowe November 29, 2018 at 9:12 am #

    Thank you, Eliza. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  4. merissa December 6, 2018 at 2:19 pm #

    wow. very powerful words. thank you for sharing.

  5. Naomy Bakadi December 7, 2018 at 2:45 pm #

    this article was pretty interesting although i don’t want to be a police officer, the rules sort of applies to every states or careers that have to do with the Criminal Justice System. I loved the allusion to the gazelle moving in herd until one falls out and becomes the Lion’s prey. i loved this thanks for sharing

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar