An Interview with Jay Bertsch
“A student in an homeland security program needs to have a very open mind. Politics and war can be divisive and controversial subjects. There are quite a few topics in this program that a student could get into arguments about if he or she does not accept the fact that people have different opinions.”
Jay Bertsch is pursuing an online Associate of Applied Science in Intelligence Operations. He is a student at Cochise College. He is also concurrently earning a Bachelor of Science in Intelligence Operations through an on-campus program at the University of Arizona.
Jay chose to pursue an associates degree in homeland security because of his interest in military history and his experience as a US Army paralegal. He chose an online program because it allows him to spend time with his wife and 2 young children.
In your own words, what is homeland security?
Homeland security and intelligence operations concern the ways in which organizations interpret and manipulate secret or tactical information about someone who is, or may be, an enemy. Homeland security involves intelligence gathering, intelligence analysis, and counterintelligence operations that prevent other groups from accessing data covertly.
Why did you choose to get an associates degree in homeland security online?
I decided to pursue my associates degree online at Cochise College because at the time that I enrolled, my 2 children were infants and I needed to be at home with them. Now that my children are older, I am also able to pursue a bachelors degree at a brick-and-mortar school. I am completing coursework for both of these programs right now.
What do you find most and least enjoyable about studying homeland security?
I enjoy studying homeland security because it relates to my previous experiences and interests. I served for 5 years in Iraq as a paralegal and worked closely with intelligence analysts. I thought their analysis of intelligence that described enemy operations was fascinating. In addition, I have always been interested in military history and war movies, and enjoy learning the true stories behind what is represented onscreen.
The least enjoyable aspect of studying homeland security is the heavy reading. I have to dedicate a substantial amount of time to reading and researching articles that can be difficult to manage. In an on-campus program much of the information is presented by professors during lectures, and that decreases the required study time. In an online program, however, students have to read and process everything on their own.
When you first considered studying homeland security online what were your expectations?
When I first considered studying homeland security I thought the program would resemble military training. I expected to learn specific intelligence skills in a single area in a strict, military fashion. Now that I am in the program I find it to be a much broader introduction to intelligence. I am learning about how the intelligence community works as a whole, instead of only learning about 1 specific area and job. The teachers are also much more lenient than I expected.
In addition, my understanding of intelligence has drastically increased in scope because of this program. I assumed that I knew a lot about intelligence before I started the associates degree program because I used to work with intelligence analysts, but in reality I only saw 1 small part of their job.
What kinds of classes have you taken in your homeland security program?
In my homeland security program I have taken courses on a variety of subjects, including introductory intelligence, counterterrorism, interrogation and imagery analysis. All of the courses are based on the same format of reading a textbook, and then responding to questions from the teacher and other students. The courses do not involve much practical experience.
In the counterterrorism course I learned about the motivations and perspectives of terrorists. The course mainly focused on the current threat posed by Islamic terrorists, but it did briefly cover historical examples of terrorism as well.
The interrogation course taught me how to ask questions in an interrogation and how to read someone’s body language to tell when they are uncomfortable or trying to hide something. I thought it was an interesting class, although it would have been useful to try out the skills in an actual classroom.
Finally, the imagery analysis course explored how to figure out what is shown in an intelligence photo. For example, I learned what steps to take in order to find out if a picture of land contains a missile silo based on the pattern of anti-aircraft guns in the surrounding area.
Which of these classes do you think will be most valuable for your future goals?
I plan to stay in the law enforcement field after receiving my intelligence degree, so I think the interrogation class will be valuable in my career. I had the chance to learn what practical steps to take in order to get information from someone.
The classes I took in counterterrorism and history are also valuable to me, because they have helped me understand the bigger picture of our military, including its policies on fighting terrorism and involvement in current affairs. The history course I took was about the history of United States since 1877, which helped me put these current affairs into perspective.
What classes do you feel will be least useful?
I took a couple of courses about specific military situations that will not be very useful because I want to work in law enforcement. One course covered intelligence preparation in the battlefield and the other discussed the different security clearances that are available in the military.
What resources do you use to help you succeed in your studies?
The only resources I have needed are Google and the school’s online library. The school also offers tutors, but I have not asked for their help so far.
Have you done an internship in your field?
I have not done an internship in this field, but my work as a paralegal in the Army gave me quite a bit of experience. This has been a huge benefit to me in my coursework at Cochise. It would have been great to have had more intelligence-specific experience before the program, but my legal experience has helped me in the same way an internship would.
Also, most of the students in my program either work for the federal government right now or have conducted intelligence work in the past, so I don’t think there is a need for an internship requirement in the program.
How do you interact with your professors?
I communicate with my professors mostly through the school’s online message board, although they also give students their e-mail addresses and phone numbers. At the beginning of each class the students and teacher post some introductory information about themselves on the message board forum. The professors may also start a separate forum that students can use if they have any questions during the course.
I think that these options for communicating with professors are sufficient. About half of the professors are former military personnel, so understand that many of their students are in the military and in some cases deployed. Because the students may not be able to access the Internet on a regular basis, the professors try hard to make themselves available and answer questions as soon as possible.
Are you able to interact with your peers while studying online?
I am definitely able to interact with my peers online. The school’s platform has options that allow us to e-mail each other, plus we can tell who is on the message board at any given time and chat with each other if we like. I have not made any friends through the program, but I think that is just because I am too busy with my family obligations and haven’t had the time to start friendships.
What personality traits do you think would help a student to succeed in an homeland security program and what traits would hinder success?
A student in an homeland security program needs to have a very open mind. Politics and war can be divisive and controversial subjects. There are quite a few topics in this program that a student could get into arguments about if he or she does not accept the fact that people have different opinions.
It is also important for a homeland security student to have an analytical mind. The student has to be able to sit down and think of all of the possible explanations for a piece of information. There usually isn’t only 1 clear answer to an intelligence question, so a student has to pursue multiple answers and then determine which is the most likely to be true.
Finally, if students becomes intelligence officers, it is important that they don’t have big egos. Intelligence work is confidential, so people don’t usually get credit for the work they do in this field.
What is your weekly schedule?
I take 2 classes per semester, so I manage my weekly course load by only working on 1 class per day. On Mondays, I finish readings and answer forum questions for 1 class. On Tuesdays I do the same for the second class. Wednesdays I take the required quiz and finish any additional work for the first class, and then on Thursdays I do the same for the second class. This is a useful system for me because I have a specific set of tasks to finish each day and I can take Fridays off.
Each day that I study I spend 2 to 3 hours reading and responding to discussion questions, in addition to some extra time it takes for looking up information I need for my responses. I will then take 1 to 2 hours to finish all of the necessary reading for a class.
How do you manage your course load? What study tips would you give to a prospective student?
I manage my course load by fitting my studies into the breaks between taking care of my kids. I care for my 2 young children during the day, so I get a lot of studying done when they are napping. I used to study at night after they went to sleep, but I realized I was too exhausted to pay attention to my work, so I had to fit my class work into my daily schedule.
I recommend that students schedule their week in a way that allows for a day off. Given the amount of time I need to spend taking care of my children, I could easily let my obligations take over my whole schedule. I avoid getting burnt out by giving myself time off each week.
What are your plans for after graduation?
After I earn my associates degree I will continue the coursework that I have started in my bachelors program in intelligence operations from the University of Arizona. When I finish that I would like to work with the FBI or DEA as an analyst.
Do you think the fact that you studied online will affect your job prospects?
The fact that my program was online will probably not affect my job prospects. Society’s impression of online schooling is changing rapidly. I think employers are more concerned with whether or not I understand the subject, rather than whether or not I studied online.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying homeland security online?
If you want to study homeland security, you should know it is difficult to succeed without prior military experience. The coursework includes a lot of military jargon, and at least my program assumes that students are already familiar with the field of intelligence.
You have to carefully consider whether or not you actually want to study intelligence operations as well. It is such a specific field that the degree will not help you in other career paths outside of intelligence operations.
Finally, you should not assume that your education will be of lower quality if you go to a good online program instead of a brick-and-mortar school.