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New majors motivate students to change social problems

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Criminology students study issues of social construction.

Humboldt State University student, Nick Rivera, used to believe that minorities were more likely to commit street crimes than other racial groups. Not until his first Criminology course did he realize his assumption was wrong and that he was misinformed by the media’s depiction of crime and minorities. Angered by this misinformation, he changed his major to Criminology and Justice Studies, and now hopes to change the system so others are not misinformed by inaccurate societal representations.

Two new major programs, Criminology and Justice Studies and Environmental Studies, created within the last two years have sought to open students’ eyes to the injustices in society and the concepts of power and privilege. Criminology and Justice Studies professor, Renee Byrd, wants her students to walk away from the Criminology and Justice Studies program with a broader understanding of how harm and crime are socially constructed.

“If you ask people to imagine a criminal, people tend to imagine a young man of color committing a street crime,” Byrd said. “We want our students to understand the impacts that  image has on the world. And related to that then white-collar, financial and corporate crimes don’t get conceptualized by the public as criminal. So if a corporation pollutes the water in a town and the children get leukemia, we don’t readily think of that as crime.”

The Environmental Studies program also incorporates the ideas of power and privilege into their curriculum as well. “The main thing that distinguishes this program among environmental studies programs nationwide is the focus on social structures of power and privilege,” Environmental Studies Program Leader, Sarah Ray said. “There’s an emphasis on how social change happens and how race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, any number of identity politic issues might play into one’s ability to address environmental problems.”

The Environmental Studies program was born out of the need for a less science-intensive, more interdisciplinary environmental major within the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The program which launched in Fall 2012 has classes that span across all three colleges to incorporate ideas of politics, communication, economics and globalization to understand how to effect change among people.

The Criminology and Justice Studies program, which launched in Fall 2013, was created out of intense student demand for this program. “HSU was one of four CSU campuses that did not offer a major in Criminology despite the fact that we knew there was interest for it,” Criminology and Justice Studies Program Coordinator, Professor Josh Meisel said, “Students that were coming to HSU communicated they wanted that major and students were transferring away from HSU because they wanted to study criminology. It’s one of the fastest growing majors in the CSU system.”

Both degrees offer students a variety of career paths to choose from.

“A lot of times students think that a criminology degree only means you can be a cop, but that really isn’t the case,” Byrd said. “Students can go into legal careers to careers in policy and research to community organizing and working in different non-profit sectors.”

Ray notes that because of Environmental Studies’ interdisciplinary nature, the degree is extremely employable because students are able to work across disciplines and have the ability to cross-communicate different ideas and opinionsan increasingly desired quality for college graduates.

These two programs are pulling many students towards advocacy work. Criminology and Justice Studies major, Dylan McClure, hopes to go into social work and focus on social justice issues in non-profits, specifically supporting people before they get involved in the criminal justice system.

McClure appreciates the diverse range of service-learning opportunities available for students in this program,from working at a juvenile hall or shadowing a public defender to working with at-risk youth with the Raven Project in Eureka.

He has done service-learning this semester at the Public Defender’s office. McClure helped to envision a more holistic approach in addressing individuals’ needs in order to lessen the impact of the legal consequences on individuals who get involved in the court system.

Originally, Rivera wanted to be a police officer. But his intention to start a career in law enforcement changed when he learned about the interplay between power structures and the criminal justice system. “I want to maximize my degree in a better way so I can change how the current system is,” Rivera said. “I’m especially looking into prison reform and activism or policymaking.”

The Environmental Studies’ focus on human involvement  in environmental problems has attracted students like HSU senior, Kira Yeomans. “I chose it because it dealt with dealing with the environment but also with people. I don’t consider myself only wanting to work in the sciences. I also want to involve the human aspect of it,” Yeoman said.

She is currently a scientific aid for the Department of Fish and Wildlife where she interviews people who are fishing, identifies fish they caught and collects and enters in data. She is considering eventually running her own NGO or non-profit.

Yeomans, who led a workshop on power and privilege at the Social Justice Summit in March, used to focus on just conserving the environment, but she’s realized through her major that environmental problems are tied to social justice issues. “Poor people and people of color usually live in environmentally degraded areas, and once we start focusing on these social issues then the environmental issues will get solved too. We can start making these polluters responsible for what they are doing.”


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