Harford County Emergency Services Director Edward Hopkins told the 38 graduates of the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program at Joppatowne High School something Thursday that they had not heard before – he thanked them for going to school.
"I'm going to thank you now for going to school and being part of this program," Hopkins, who was the keynote speaker during the Senior Capstone Expo, told the seniors assembled in the school auditorium.
Hopkins, who has decades of experience in public safety with the Harford County Sheriff's Office, the Maryland Emergency Management Administration, the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company and as a Bel Air town commissioner and mayor, said "this program is critical to our nation's security."
"It shows that you're demonstrating forward thinking throughout your lives and as you look at our nation's security and our nation's response to disasters," he said.
Hopkins noted the U.S. faces the continued threat of terrorist attacks from organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The U.S. has suffered prior jihadist attacks in the past 15 years, such as 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 and a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. last year.
"Not since the Cold War have we seen such an imminent threat to our country and the need for students of your caliber to continue our nation's efforts in homeland security and emergency management," Hopkins said.
The Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program is a three-year signature program open to students in the Joppatowne High attendance area. Students must complete the Foundations in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness course in their sophomore years. They then spend the next two years studying one of three strands – Homeland Security Sciences, Criminal Justice/Law Enforcement and Information/Communications Technology: Geographic Information Systems.
Their learning includes field trips to government or private-sector facilities related to homeland security, emergency management or public health, and students meet professionals in those fields. Students spend their senior year with a mentor who works in a public safety field developing their Capstone projects.
Those Capstone projects were on display Thursday.
"You will have a wonderful experience tonight as you go through and look at the projects that they've been working on after three years of working through the program, learning about various careers," Joppatowne principal Pamela Zeigler told the audience.
Harford County Councilman Mike Perrone, whose district includes Joppatowne and a graduate of Joppatowne High, shared some "life lessons" with the students, including how they are likely to meet people who "won't think twice about throwing someone under the bus to get what they want."
"At the same time, humanity still has the capacity to accomplish some pretty wonderful things, and so you have to be able to understand and focus on both the bad and the good in human nature," he said.
Each senior also walked across the stage as his or her name was called and received a purple and silver stole monogrammed with the initials HSEP to represent the program.
The students then headed to the cafeteria, where they stood next to poster boards that bore the details of their senior projects.
Multiple career paths
Jakobi Bruce, 17, of Edgewood, conducted research on Marine Corps combat engineers, who he called "the backbone of the Marine Corps."
He said combat engineers have a variety of roles to support their fellow troops and civilians in combat zones, such as building military bases, setting booby traps and everything form "blowing up bridges to building bridges to building houses for civilians."
Jakobi plans to join the Marines after high school. He said he loves the homeland security program.
"Anything that's going on in the world, we do research on," he said. "Basically, it broadens our minds, not just through the United States but throughout the world."
Luke Velasco, 17, of Joppa, studied "the effectiveness of a trained observer." A trained observer works with medical personnel or HAZMAT specialists as they put on their protective suits and take them off to ensure no contaminants got through during an emergency.
Luke was surprised to learn they are not employed at area hospitals.
"Why wouldn't they be in a hospital, where there's a ton of people?" he asked. "They're just looking out for everybody, really."
Luke plans to go into the nursing field, inspired by his mother, who worked as a nurse at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore County, and his exposure to multiple career paths through the homeland security program.
He will start with the nursing program at Harford Community College and then transfer to either Towson University or Stevenson University.
"I really like the idea of nursing," he said. "I like helping people and caring for them."
His classmate, Lovely Lopez, 18, of Edgewood, also wants to go into the medical field, as a doctor. She was in the criminal justice strand of the program, however, and her project was about the reliability of eyewitness testimony.
Her experiments, in which participants were asked to remember details of a nonviolent incident and a violent incident, showed eyewitnesses were more reliable after a violent incident.
"It draws more attention, and people want to look and they want to see what's going on," she said.
Lopez said the program "definitely led me to my career choice."
She decided to become a doctor after meeting military personnel in the medical field.
"They showed me what medicine was and what exactly they do every day," Lopez said.