Nichols College offers unique master’s degree: countering violent extremism

The Boston Marathon bombing. The neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. The assassination of police officers in Dallas.

Violent extremism is a reality in the United States and around the world. But the nation has just one graduate program with the sole purpose of training people to combat violent extremism.

That program is at Nichols College, a business-focused school in Dudley.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing we do have violent extremist events happening here in the U.S. and internationally, and it’s not a problem that’s going away any time in the near future,” said Allison McDowell-Smith, director of the Master of Science in Counterterrorism program at Nichols College. “We have to work on being proactive, look at a preventative approach to understand how individuals become violent extremists and what we can do to counter that.”

In May, the school graduated its first class of master’s degree students in counterterrorism. The college piloted the degree with a class of 10 students, with plans to gradually scale up. More than 20 students plan to attend next year.

“We’re making sure we’re growing appropriately at the right time,” said Kerry Calnan, executive director of graduate and professional studies at Nichols College.

While there are other master’s programs focused on counterterrorism, Nichols College officials say their program is unique in its focus on violent extremism, which includes but is not limited to terrorism. Unlike terrorism, violent extremism does not need a political component.

Counterterrorism often focuses on “hard power” such as force, while countering violent extremism includes educating communities, recognizing early signs of radicalization and trying to prevent people from turning to violence.

Calnan said Nichols College officials wanted to call the program a degree in countering violent extremism but changed the name to counterterrorism because the Massachusetts Department of Education disapproved of the nomenclature. 

McDowell-Smith, who helped create the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism — a Washington, D.C.-based think tank — said she realized from her work there that there were think tanks dedicated to countering violent extremism, but no higher education institutions. There are a growing number of jobs in the field, since the Department of Homeland Security has made countering violent extremism a priority.

The courses are taught online. Each week, students must participate in one 90-minute evening session with the teacher and the whole class. They can either come to campus or log in remotely.

Ardian Shajkovci, research director at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, taught a course on international violent extremism by video from Iraq, where he was interviewing ISIS defectors and ISIS members in prison. 

“We bring hands-on research experience to students so they can understand the localized nature of violent extremism,” Shajkovci said. He teaches students how an ISIS terrorist in the Balkans might be motivated by something different from an ISIS terrorist in Europe. In a separate course on the media, he teaches how social media is used for recruiting by terrorist groups.

“I hope that what they learn, they take back to their respective jobs in the future or into their communities… to try to build resilience, to better understand the issue of violent extremism and know how to deal with it proactively,” Shajkovci said.

Courses include cybersecurity, border security, homegrown and international extremism and the media’s impact on violent extremism. In their final class, students develop a cohesive strategy for the U.S. to counter violent extremism. 

Nichols College also partnered with a college in the Netherlands to give students the chance to take a six-week course there. 

One faculty member is retired Brigadier General Paul Greg Smith of the Army National Guard, who led the joint task force that responded to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. At a recent State House hearing on cybersecurity, Smith testified that the Nichols program is “desperately needed” to teach students about the latest tactics and procedures that extremists are using and how to counteract them.

Steve Morreale, chairman of the criminal justice department at Worcester State University, teaches courses at Nichols on cybercrime and border security. Morreale spent 30 years in law enforcement working for the military police, a New Hampshire police agency and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Morreale said while the course on border security is timely, given President Donald J. Trump’s focus on cracking down on illegal immigration, the class is far broader. He teaches students about protecting the north and south borders, the airports and shipping terminals. When a caravan of refugees made headlines trying to cross the Mexican border into the U.S., Morreale asked his students to think what would happen in Mexico or in China if a caravan of refugees were caught sneaking in.

In a class on cybercrime, Morreale talks about data breaches and encryption. “Most people don’t understand how much privacy we give up when we sign up for Facebook,” Morreale said.

The program’s initial students were mostly former Nichols undergraduates. This year, Nichols is partnering with Worcester State University to attract its graduates. Calnan said the program is attracting more military members and municipal first responders.

Tuition for a non-military student is $21,000 for the 30-credit degree. Members of the military can get their degree for $7,500. 

Stephen Magner, a lieutenant colonel with 21 years in the U.S. Army who teaches military science at UMass Amherst, enrolled in the course last winter and plans to finish this spring. “It’s definitely relevant to what I do in the U.S. Army, and I think it’s a worthwhile degree to help me if and when I retire,” Magner said.

Magner has been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said countering violent extremism is an important topic for the military, civilians and businesses. “If you look at how the curriculum’s built, it offers a really good holistic view from a diplomatic, military, economic, information, social and cultural viewpoint,” Magner said.

Magner, who lives in Amherst and has three children, said it is helpful to be able to attend remotely.

Alexander Guest attended Nichols College as an undergraduate criminal justice major, then returned and is midway through his master’s degree. He is working as a reserve police officer for Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard and wants to pursue a career in law enforcement or homeland security.

“It was more diverse than other programs, not just specifically about counterterrorism but homegrown violent extremism in the U.S. and globally,” Guest said.

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