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Journey from American Studies to a Master’s in “Global Criminology” (by Jill van Rijt)

Datum:29 maart 2016
At Vught prison
At Vught prison

In 2013 I completed my Bachelor in American Studies at the University of Groningen. I have never been a person who knew what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do when I was young. Choosing American Studies was not a strategic choice or coordinated move, I just wanted to study something I was interested in. The American Studies BA offered a lot of freedom to choose courses on various subjects and write about topics that interested me. Because I had always been interested in law, politics, and criminality I took elective courses in “Political Drama” and “American Constitutional Law.” But also during the compulsory courses “Theories of Culture” and “Rhetoric and Composition” I was able to write essays on issues such as human trafficking in the United States, the murdered women in Juarez on the U.S.-Mexican border and “the bling ring” crimes.

In my third year I was selected for a semester abroad in the U.S. at the College of Charleston in South Carolina ( ), where I took various crime and criminology-related courses. One of the courses on policing even provided me with the chance to ride along with the local police department! Back in the Netherlands, I now knew what I wanted to do once I finished my Bachelor degree: a Master in Criminology. Therefore, I wrote my Bachelor thesis on mass imprisonment in the United States and started the application for the Master in Criminology at Utrecht University.

Because the process of choosing the right master program in Criminology and applying took some time, I took a year off after the BA to get my things in order. I decided to travel to South-East Asia and Australia, where I took the opportunity to visit several prisons. During this year, I compared all the Masters in criminology (in the Netherlands but also outside of the Netherlands). Because most Criminology master programs often demand a BA in sociology, psychology, law or another social science degree, my options were limited. But I had hope, because the Master program that most appealed to me, the Master in “Global Criminology” at the University of Utrecht ( ), was interested in accepting students with more diverse backgrounds in various fields.

To make sure I really did have a chance of getting accepted, I made an appointment with the law faculty advisor in Utrecht. In turn, he referred me to the coordinator of the “Global Criminology” master who advised me to read some books on criminological theories and research methods that would help me in my application. Then I had to send in a resumé, a motivational letter and a letter of recommendation. During my application for the Master I mainly had to show that my previous education had taught me enough about the basics of criminology. Luckily, I had completed the criminology courses in the U.S. and “American Constitutional Law.

Most importantly, in my interview I had to convince the Admissions Committee that I was extremely motivated to pursue a degree (and career) in criminology. Through my various essays, including my thesis on the U.S. prison system, I was able to demonstrate that I had conducted a range of studies on criminological issues. Moreover, because I visited several prisons and penal institutions while traveling I was able to assure them that I was passionate about the topics of crime and justice, not only professionally but also in my spare time. After this interview they told me that I had to take two catch-up courses in the summer to make sure my knowledge on criminology was sufficient and that if I passed those, I was accepted. And I passed!

In the first weeks of the Master, I was confident that I had made the right choice. My class consisted of students with many different Bachelors degrees, which made discussions very interesting and reflected the same interdisciplinary dynamic that I had experienced (and enjoyed) in the BA American Studies. For the first two courses on critical criminology and doing qualitative research ( ), I did research on ‘Sextortion’ as a new form of cyber crime and wrote essays on terrorism and state crime in Serbia and the criminalization of the homeless.

Halfway through the Master, the entire class went on a study trip to Budapest where we got lectures from organizations and institutions that are involved in criminological issues. In addition, we visited the Parliament, the police head quarters and a prison and mental institution. Seeing things in practice and getting information from primary sources on their work and experiences really enriched the things we were learning in class. Moreover, it was a great way to get to know my fellow Master students and teachers in an informal setting.

In addition, during my Master degree I was able to do an internship with the Dutch Custodial Institutions ( ). Along with another student from the Master program, our assignment was to (academically) evaluate changes made in the daily regime in the detention center in Vught. These changes were based on a more normalized prison regime and were aimed at increasing detainees’ self-reliance. We observed the daily routine for nearly four months and interviewed staff and detainees on their experiences. Through this internship I got to learn even more about the prison system, which only increased the appeal of this field of interest for me.

Even though it sometimes surprises people, I have always found the step from American Studies to Criminology a very natural one; not only does a lot of criminological research originate from the U.S., but criminology also addresses sociological, cultural and political issues that were discussed in American Studies. Furthermore, because the United States is such a major player on an international level in the Western hemisphere, many issues related to the U.S. are of importance in the study of crime; issues such as the death penalty, human trafficking and drug trafficking, gun control and (the fight against) terrorism. Moreover, in the Master program I really benefitted from the skills acquired in the BA such as writing well-founded, coherent and substantive argumentative essays and having good presentation skills.

Currently, I am finishing my Master thesis on the re-socialization of terrorist detainees. In the future I hope I can continue working in the field of prison policy, perhaps in the field of (counter-) terrorism related issues or, like in my Master thesis, a combination of the two. My dream is still to work in the United States in the future so I can even more combine both what I learned during my BA in American Studies and in my MA in Criminology. Thus, as it turns out, my experiences during my BA in American Studies helped me find direction and offered me the chance to discover what I want to do in life!