By Nathan Morgan
The 2022-23 academic year has been a monumental one for UT Martin’s criminal justice program. Not only is the program celebrating its 50th anniversary as part of the College of Education, Health and Behavioral Sciences, the master’s degree in criminal justice program also had its first graduate cross the commencement stage in December. Cpt. Wesley Stafford, director of training for the Tennessee Highway Patrol, has added a UT Martin degree to his impressive list of credentials and degrees.
Stafford began his law enforcement career as a reserve deputy at the Cheatham County Sheriff’s Department in 1996. After nearly two years in that role, he accepted a full-time position with the department.
“I don’t mean to sound corny, but law enforcement – just the whole idea of protecting and serving – just really felt like a calling,” he said. In 2005, he became a trooper with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Stafford eventually transitioned into the role of teacher. He became a member of the Tennessee Highway Patrol Training Division because of a desire to help other law enforcement officers better themselves. This opportunity allowed him to continue doing the job he loved but also educate future generations of troopers. While in his role as an instructor, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Bethel University.
The chance to return to school for his master’s degree presented itself when UT Martin added a new master’s degree in criminal justice in spring 2022.
“As I look toward the end of my career in law enforcement, I wonder what life looks like afterwards. Maybe, along with my other credentials, this (his master’s degree) will make me more marketable in the private sector,” Stafford said. “But at this point, I’ve got it, and nobody can take that away. So, I am proud to have completed it.”
For 50 years, the UT Martin criminal justice program has produced police officers, state troopers, forensic scientists, judges, lawyers and many other law enforcement specialists.
In addition to academic courses tailored for the classroom, the criminal justice program offers hands-on learning to students to better prepare them for the real world. Through internships and summer programs, such as the National Collegiate Forensics Academy in Oak Ridge, the faculty prepare students for their next steps.
Brian Donavant, UT Martin professor of criminal justice, has been with the program since 2006. As the program heads into its 51st year, Donavant hopes to see the undergraduate and master’s degrees grow.
“They say there’s an art to being small, and as a regional public university I think we’ve found our niche in that,” he said. “We don’t need to be small in our thinking, but we need to stay true to the applied approach that gives folks real hands-on useful tools for when they are out there working to serve the public.”