"Where were you on 9/11?" It's a question that stirs moments of reflection for most Americans, but for AIU Online criminal justice faculty member Dr. Grace Telesco, what happened afterward is where the compelling story of her 9/11 experience begins. It's also a prime example of how the retired police lieutenant, who served for 20 years in the New York Police Department, brings her unique real-world experience into the online classroom.
Back in 2001, Dr. Telesco was teaching in addition to her work as a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department and serving as Chairperson of the Behavioral Science Department at the New York City Police Academy. "The morning of [9/11], I was teaching a course in, ironically, crisis intervention at a local community college."
After the planes hit, it was pandemonium. Instructions on what to do next were limited, so Dr. Telesco generated her own plan. She and five cops created a temporary family assistance center in a public administration building across from the morgue to help those seeking information about lost loved ones. This small operation surpassed expectations. "We attracted thousands," she said. "I have my Ph.D. in social work, so I understood the mental health aspect.
Dr. Telesco was appointed as the Interagency Coordinator of Mental Health Services for the center, which remained open for over a year, by then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "It was more than just missing person's reports. We offered various services in a joint effort with several agencies." There was counseling, updated hospital lists, therapy dogs, and ferry trips to take people to see the last place their loved ones were. "I tell my students that you'd never imagine a police officer in that role providing that level of service. You imagine them directing traffic, not dealing with mental health, but they did, and they were just ordinary officers," she said.
"When I mention [9/11] in my classes, it's meaningful. In teaching online, there are nontraditional older students who remember it and when they find out, they want to know more."
Her involvement with 9/11 led her to receive a call from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit. She was asked to fly to New Orleans, where for one week she was part of the elite Disaster Technical Assistance and Consultation Team. She conducted debriefings and provided assistance to the governor of Louisiana and the state Office of Mental Health.
"I'm always excited to teach [AIU's] Communication and Crisis Planning course. While the lessons are set, there's some flexibility and I can pull in Katrina. ... My approach to teaching is two-fold. There's the theoretical foundation—the blueprint of the curriculum—and the practice." To learn the most about real-life application, she encourages online students to attend the live chats. "In live chats, we talk about how it works in the real world."
While Dr. Telesco has plenty of street and book smarts to bring to her classes, for her, the street smarts came first. "When I joined the police department, I had no college education," she said. "I began taking one course every semester at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. ... It took me eight years to get my bachelor's." Afterward, she pursued her master's and then her doctorate. "Take it one step, one course, at a time. Never give up. There is an incredible amount of value in education. ... Keep your eyes on the prize and you'll eventually reach your goal."
Her involvement with some of America's defining moments, such as the September 11th attacks, helps her bring course curriculum to life for AIU students. "I like to bridge the gap between theory and practice, share my personal experience, and be hands-on if possible," said Dr. Telesco. While she currently teaches Introduction to Law Enforcement, pro-seminar, and research courses, she says, "There aren't many [criminal justice] courses I haven't taught."
Former students of Dr. Telesco's have kept in contact and she enjoys hearing how they, too, have reached their goals. "This year on 9/11, three of my students from AIU South Florida texted me with 'thinking of you' messages," she said. One of them also shared her professional success. "It's nice to see that I made some type of impression, they remember me, I inspired them, they're proud of themselves, and they want me to be proud of them."
To students and graduates, she says no matter where you are on your educational or career path, "Appreciate the journey. I used to think, 'I can't wait until I get my bachelor's/master's/Ph.D.,' but there's something about the journey that's really powerful. And that's what it's all about. It's all about the journey."
Dr. Telesco has taught at AIU since 2005 and is a full-time online faculty member.