Richey Harrell is living proof that it’s never too late to pursue a dream or accomplish a lifelong goal.
A captain with the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, Harrell was honored as the first graduate of Georgia Highlands College’s Bachelor of Science in criminal justice program during a virtual ceremony Saturday that celebrated the accomplishments of the Class of 2020 as well as GHC’s 50th commencement.
“Being the first graduate from GHC's new bachelor degree program was not my goal but am honored to have been able to achieve my goal and be the first to graduate from the new bachelor's program,” the Cartersville resident said.
Harrell, 55, said he regretted not attending college when he was younger, and although he was happy with his career, he decided five years ago to pursue his goal of earning a degree.
“I have been in law enforcement for 30 years, 25 when I began my college endeavors,” he said. “I wanted to not only prove to myself that I was capable of obtaining my goal, I also wanted to set the example for the officers that I work with that although challenging, it is possible to do our jobs and continue our education.”
The Rome native — who moved to southwest Georgia after high school, came back to Rome when he was hired by BCSO in 1990 but “quickly realized that I didn't want that far of a drive every day” so he moved his family to Cartersville later that year — said he began his educational journey five years ago at GHC “with the goal of obtaining my associate degree and then pursuing my bachelor's.”
“It had been a goal for me to get a degree, but I started my family young and put that on the back burner,” he said. “When I turned 50, it seemed like a good time to start. I spoke with my friend and mentor, professor Randy Green, who I had worked with before he retired, and he encouraged me to follow through, and so I started.”
In fact, Green, along with criminal justice professor Dr. Greg Sumner, were “instrumental” in Harrell’s decision to purse his degree at GHC “due to their experience in the criminal justice field,” he said.
“I chose to attend GHC because of the reputation of the faculty and staff at the college,” he said. “I feel it is important for the professors that are leading the student to be experienced in the field, and both of these gentlemen are not only well-respected in academia but also in their respective law enforcement careers. This was a huge impact on my decision to attend GHC.”
Harrell — who has been married to his wife, Tracy, for 34 years and has two sons, Josh and Tanner, and four grandchildren — called his college experience “amazing.”
“The staff at Georgia Highlands is amazing to work with,” he said, noting he joined Phi Theta Kappa and became an honorary member of the Criminal Justice Club while working on his associate degree. “They were very welcoming and receptive to the nontraditional student that I was. It would have been nice to be able to participate more in all of the activities that are available to the students at GHC, but since I was working full time and have a family that I love to spend time with, that priority was important to me to maintain.”
The lessons Harrell learned while completing the bachelor’s degree in criminal justice program, which started last year, extended beyond the material in the textbooks.
“I learned that setting achievable goals, working hard and keeping a positive attitude are crucial in helping me to be successful in school,” he said. “I am the department training officer for the sheriff's office, and learning as much as possible to help us be the best officers that we can be are very important.”
Becoming a law enforcement officer had been a “childhood dream of mine,” Harrell said.
“I feel that this job is a calling, and I felt that call at a young age and was blessed to be able to serve the residents of Bartow County proudly,” he said.
Harrell has spent his entire career within the borders of Bartow County, being hired by BCSO in June 1990.
“I started in the jail and went to the police academy in 1991, ironically at Georgia Highlands College that was still called Floyd College at the time,” he said. “I have worked in the patrol division, criminal investigations and was a DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] officer for 18 years.”
In his current position, he’s responsible for “ensuring all of the staff at the department receive the training necessary to be successful in the jobs,” he said.
But being a grandfather is “by far the best job title I have ever held,” he added.
Now that he has his bachelor’s degree under his belt, Harrell plans to continue his education by earning a master’s degree and eventually becoming a criminal justice professor at GHC.
“I would like to make a difference in people's lives, and sharing the benefit of my past experience in the classroom with people that are interested in law enforcement as a career seems to be a natural progression for me,” he said.
Harrell said the reason he’s agreed to be interviewed for various articles about being the program’s first graduate is “not for any self-gratification.”
“I am very grateful to be honored with the first graduate from Georgia Highlands College new bachelor's degree program,” he said. “I want the school and the program to prosper, and if I can be an inspiration to young or old alike, that is my goal.”
Sumner said the program is a good option for those seeking to increase their career options at the entry level or who are working for a law enforcement agency.
“The need for more officers with a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice degree has continued to grow, meaning more law enforcement agencies are requiring a bachelor’s degree to obtain executive-level ranks to include chief of police,” he said in a news release. “The International and Georgia Associations of Chiefs of Police both recommend any agency hiring a chief of police to hire someone with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, preferably in criminal justice.”
Georgia Highlands is offering the new program, which has more than 40 students enrolled, completely online as part of the University System of Georgia’s eMajor initiative.
“eMajor degrees are designed specifically for nontraditional students and include several benefits and student success resources in addition to those already available through GHC,” Vice President for Academic Affairs Dana Nichols said in the release. “eMajor programs are ideal for those who need to balance work and family responsibilities with their pursuit of higher education.”
All courses last for eight weeks each, and students have full access to GHC facilities as well as instructors for on-campus and online conferencing.
The program also offers college credit through the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council for law enforcement officers and prior military.
“Students enrolled in the program have a dedicated adviser to assist them with course registration and long-range planning,” Leslie Terrell-Payne, online advising coordinator and eMajor liaison, said in the release.
The criminal justice program also ranks “well below the average cost for an online degree program, compared to many of the top schools providing similar programs,” Terrell-Payne said.
“Tuition is just $199 per credit hour, while most online programs charge $300 per credit hour and higher,” she said.