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My journey: An NLU success story

leo brunelleMy name is Leo Brunelle, and I’m a 2002 B.A. in Applied Behavioral Sciences (ABS) graduate of NLU and now-retired law enforcement officer from central Florida. My academic journey began in 1977 when I took my first college courses with the University of Alaska Anchorage while I was in the U.S. Air Force, and up until July 1989, I sporadically attended college and finally earned my associate’s degree. I became the first person in my family to accomplish this milestone, but I wanted more — I wanted to continue my evolution personally, professionally and academically.

In 1990, I started on the path to my bachelor’s degree, but due to work commitments, my obligations as a father and husband, and financial shortcomings, I wasn’t able to continue the journey and dropped out after one semester. In 1997, after seven years in law enforcement, I noticed that other officers were climbing the ladder and making rank, and one common denominator was that nearly all of them had a bachelor’s degree or higher. During a promotion interview in 1998, my lieutenant asked me, “What is your five-year plan for your future and career?”

That question caught me off guard and presented a glaring shortcoming I had to face if I were ever to advance. I needed a plan of action with an endgame. I very quickly replied, “I intend on completing my bachelor’s degree to put me into a better position to make sergeant when the opportunity presents itself.” I realized that I had just painted myself into a corner and would now need to make good on my response. If I failed to complete my goal, my credibility would become worthless.

In 1999, I found an online institution that offered degree programs for professionals who couldn’t attend a traditional brick-and-mortar university, and given my shift schedule, I needed a flexible program to accommodate my busy professional life. This was my second attempt at completing my bachelor’s, and after three semesters, I felt there were some in the institution who were passive-aggressively or even openly hostile toward me because of my profession.

I remember I quit that program on a Sunday night, feeling both relieved and miserable because I believed I had failed and would never realise my goal of earning my degree. The following Monday when I walked into the office, my sergeant asked how I was doing with my program and said he was beginning one with National Louis. I told him what had happened and how I felt, and he told me about NLU’s ABS program and gave me the name and number of the program coordinator.

I made the call and met with Jean Reynolds, who mapped out a credit plan to determine what I would need to complete the ABS. She found that I was qualified with my associate’s degree and had additional credits from the USAF to put me directly into the 15-month accelerated program. Jean completed the paperwork, gave me my books and told me to report the following Monday.

It was at this point that my journey toward success truly began. It was the first time in my life that I truly felt I belonged in school. I was excited and looking forward to meeting my teachers and classmates but also nervous about embarking on a new path. But I had my sergeant with me, and it was a journey that I knew that I had to complete if was to fulfil that goal I told my lieutenant two years earlier. I knew that there was no going back.

In the past, I never felt I was good enough in school, although I did feel deep down that I was a bit smarter than some people thought. I purposely kept that to myself and chose to marginalise my potential for fear of failing and being ridiculed and bullied, as had been my experience as a kid. But now, for some strange reason, a little voice inside said: “What do you have to be afraid of? You’re not that kid anymore — you’re a trained police officer, and you can take care of yourself. Just do it!”

The next Monday night, I met my classmates for the first time. There were 12 of us, and my sergeant and I were the only two men. The women in the class were as diverse racially, culturally, religiously and in age as any group I had encountered, which promised to make things stimulating. Several minutes after we assembled, a gentleman walked in wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis and sporting a ponytail with a beard and moustache. My sergeant and I looked at each other and thought … (You may guess the rest.)

At the time I was working as an undercover narcotics and vice agent and had banana-yellow hair down to my shoulders and a scraggly goatee. I correctly guessed this ponytailed gentleman was our instructor, and we sized each other up. I’d learned his name the previous week — David San Filippo — the same last name as a local defense attorney who was reviled by local law enforcement officers. I assumed he was related to this individual and would probably hold a very anti-law enforcement mind-set toward my sergeant and me, so I braced myself for a potentially confrontational semester. But I soon learned that my assumption was completely wrong.

Dr. San Filippo explained to us that he was not a teacher but a facilitator for our class. He was not going to treat us like children. We had the freedom to express ourselves in our writings, but this had a caveat: We had to respect one another. He told us that we had the widest possible latitude to demonstrate in our writing submissions what we had learned. This was the first time in my life I had heard any teacher make that statement.

The only way I can describe this feeling is that it was like someone taking a key and unlocking the potential inside of my head. I felt free, I felt safe, and I felt as if I was going to actually do well in the program. Dr. San Filippo was one of about six or seven different lecturers we had in our 15-month program, and of all of the “facilitators” we had, he most clearly stands out in my mind.

I went on to complete the ABS program with honors, graduating in April 2002. During August and December of 2001, I had already prepared myself for and successfully passed the sergeant’s examination. When the scoring was completed and the sergeant’s eligibility list was posted, I found myself 15 points ahead of the second-place candidate, five of those points were awarded as a result of my having completed my bachelor’s degree. I was the only candidate of five who had a bachelor’s degree and for several years the only sergeant in my agency to hold a bachelor’s degree.

From that point on, my professional life changed. I was viewed by my peers and some higher-ranking officers in a different light, and I was treated with a bit more “respect” and “seriousness.” I also found the same attitude was shared by other criminal justice and social service professionals, and even in one case, several jurors were surprised that they had met a cop who was “educated.”

I went on to complete my master’s degree in criminal justice and obtain a certificate in advanced graduate studies in counter-terrorism, and I am now a confirmed doctoral candidate with Federation University Australia. Dr. San Filippo went on to become one of my closest friends, my most trusted academic mentor and is currently my associate supervisor for my doctoral program. Of all of the academics I have had the privilege to study under, it was Dr. San Filippo who made the biggest difference for me.

He planted the seed for me to academically evolve, progress, and succeed in my bachelor’s and master’s programs through his example and mentoring. And he’s inspired me to continue the journey toward my ultimate goal of becoming Dr. Leo Brunelle. I will be the first in my family’s history to attain this level of academic achievement. Had I not had the great fortune of crossing paths with Dr. San Filippo, I’m quite certain I would never have even finished my bachelor’s degree and honored that statement to my lieutenant. I would not be where I am now.