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Varied Paths Lead Criminology Professor to a Scholarly "Home" at St. John's

Monday, May 5, 2014

The road to academia was not a conventional one for Judith Ryder, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and anthropology. But she feels her circuitous route might encourage students who are where she once was—uncertain of a career path.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan, Ryder earned a master's degree in American history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She then went to work for the National School Safety Center (NSSC) in California, a nonprofit organization that advocates for safe schools and the prevention of school-related violence. "It brings together educators and law enforcement personnel to deal with kids who act out," she explained.

Ryder had practical skills she put to good use at the NSSC. "That's what the liberal arts are for,” she said. “You develop critical thinking and analytical skills, as well as good writing." Developing a passion for issues surrounding youthful offenders, she decided this would become her professional focus.

When she left California for New York City, she joined the National Development and Research Institutes Inc., a nonprofit agency dedicated to studying substance abuse, mental health, HIV/AIDS, and other related social and health concerns. During this time, she pursued her doctorate in criminal justice at the City University of New York (CUNY), tying her policy and research experience to her academic work.

Ryder studied the effectiveness of drug treatment programs in prison, working with violent offenders and researching their needs. Eventually, she focused on the root causes of why juveniles—especially girls—become offenders. She used much of that data for her recent book, Girls and Violence: Tracing the Roots of Criminal Behavior.

After serving as an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Ryder accepted a full-time position at SJU. She pursued teaching, she said, because "you can bring your research interests into the classroom to discuss with students. It's really encouraging and energizing to share with them all the different avenues they can explore through criminology."

One of Ryder's mandates at St. John's was to help develop the Master of Arts in Criminology and Justice in St. John's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Many of its graduates have gone on to law school or careers in criminal investigation. "A lot of them are interested in affecting social change, so they go into nonprofit or service-oriented careers."

The program enjoys a thriving alumni network, Ryder stressed: "We have an event called 'Criminology Connections' that allows students to meet alumni, who give formal presentations and are available for networking. This has helped students to secure internships and jobs."

Linking theory and policy with action is critical, Ryder observed. One activity she especially prizes is the Clothesline Project, a national program that addresses violence against women. She brought it to the Queens campus about seven years ago, and each year, approximately 200 t-shirts are displayed on the Great Lawn, each symbolizing a woman who has been victimized.

Lively discussions are the norm for Ryder's classes. "Everyone has an opinion about crime,” she said. She tells her students that it's fine to have an opinion, but they need to understand data—especially concerning which programs work and why.