Ken Kilian loved his experience in the graduate criminal justice degree program at Saint Leo University so much that he now finds himself paying it forward to current Saint Leo students as an adjunct instructor.

The 43-year-old Chicago native now resides in Trinity, Fla. with his wife and two daughters. The family also has a dog and two cats.

Selecting Saint Leo University for Graduate School

For his undergraduate work, Kilian attained a bachelor's degree in education and social policy from Northwestern University in 1998.

Fifteen years after graduating with this bachelor's diploma, Kilian dove back into higher education by pursuing a master's degree. In the spring of 2013, he enrolled in Saint Leo University's Master of Science in Criminal Justice with a Specialization in Critical Incident Management.

He first learned of Saint Leo through his job.

"I had just started working at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office," he recalls. "I remember that an increasing number of Saint Leo graduates were applying for jobs in our agency. Plus, we were growing our relationship with Saint Leo and started offering to cover education up through master's degree programs for our staff. It was in our backyard, so I felt like I really needed to look into what they offered."

He also wanted a school that was compatible with his personal outlook.

"I needed a university that aligned with myself as a person. The core values of our agency and those of Saint Leo are very similar. I love how they embed these core values in the coursework of each program."

By doubling up on classes and keeping his eye on the prize, he completed the online degree program just a year later in the spring of 2014. He is now pursuing a Ph.D. in criminal justice from Liberty University.

A Perfect Fit

He says that the delivery of the online degree program was ideal for balancing the courses with his career and family.

"The flexibility of this program and the ability to control my schedule was amazing," Kilian says. "As important as education is to me, I wasn't going to sacrifice family time for a master's degree. This online degree program allowed me to still keep that family time."

A Memorable Academic Journey

When asked about his favorite courses, one that immediately comes to mind is on leadership and management with Dr. Eloy Nunez.

"This class was on learning about yourself and what makes you a good person and a good leader. I learned how to be a better boss, father and husband thanks to this one class. It wasn't about criminal justice theories but more about becoming a better person and how to put others before yourself."

He can easily rattle off several criminal justice faculty members' names who have meant so much to him.

"I love Dr. Phillip Neely, Dr. Joseph Cillo, Dr. Bobby Sullivan, Dr. Karin May and Dr. David Persky," he says. "They have all been tremendously helpful to me both within the university and outside of it."

Advice to Adult Learners

According to Kilian, it was a very smooth transition back into an academic program because of the support he received.

"The manner in which the instructors engaged students was very nurturing. The openness for communication – phone calls, in-person meetings and e-mails – all made you feel very comfortable and took away some of that scariness of jumping back into school after so long. I also think 15 years of professional work made it easier to go back to school because I learned what hard work was in my job, and I could apply that same approach to my master's coursework."

And his advice to anyone starting a graduate degree program?

"Sometimes we get tunnel vision with academic programs. Always keep the end-goal in mind. Enjoy the journey and every part of it. If you can maintain the drive, the end result is so worthwhile."

Professional Pursuits with a Criminal Justice Degree

Kilian started his criminal justice career with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in 2000. He began working as a child protective investigations trainee and then as a certified child protection investigator.

In 2011, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office brought him on board as director of its child protective investigations unit.

"We have 90 of the most dedicated men and women you'll find anywhere with some of the most difficult jobs in handling child abuse cases," he explains. "A lot of my day is spent supporting these individuals in their efforts and also engaging with potential community partners."

Some of the criminal justice faculty members, including Dr. Neely and Dr. Cillo, worked with Kilian to help develop an internship program within the child protective investigations division that he oversees. The Pasco Sheriff's Office has the only CPI division in the state that has an internship program with a university.

"We have built a tremendous internship program with Saint Leo that selects criminal justice degree students and provides them with 15 weeks of training that is identical to what our new hires receive. In fact, they are side-by-side with these new hires in the training classes. So, they leave this training program provisionally certified as a child welfare professional. Then they are much more likely to find a job because of the quality of this training."

He explains what his mission is when he walks into the office each day.

"My goal is for a new hire to enjoy their job as much as I have. I want to give them an opportunity by removing every barrier I can to give them what they need to succeed."

From Coursework to Career

Several aspects of the master's program have directly benefited his current role.

"There are so many ways in which the program has benefited me. I have grown as a person, as a leader of men and women and as someone who handles so many people with such a diversity of backgrounds."

Plus, some of the curriculum taught him specifically about dealing with child abuse cases.

"Part of the curriculum allowed us to understand the impact of adverse childhood experiences and how these experiences can lead to future negative behaviors. Child abuse is generational."

Paying It Forward

In addition to launching the internship program with Saint Leo, Kilian began teaching as an adjunct instructor for the university a few years ago.

"After we started that internship program with Saint Leo, then we said what about a child welfare course being offered?"

Initially, he taught classes on drugs and society, leadership and other general criminal justice degree courses. In the spring of 2019, his dream of seeing a course on child welfare came to fruition.

"I got to teach this for the first time. The class filled up pretty quickly and we thought it was a huge success."

Because of the high demand from students, it is being offered again in the spring of 2020.

"It's not just about a textbook," he says. "How about I show you photos of some real-world examples of child protective investigations?"

Teaching students practical skills is a cornerstone of how he operates as an instructor.

"I am the opposite of someone who is going to lecture you for 50 minutes of a class period," he says. "I am walking around the entire room and interacting with everyone in that classroom. My goal is to engage every student and provide them with a practical, real-world education because they are paying to learn relevant skills. I also want to make sure they know what they're getting into with this field so they can make the best career decision."

When he does have a little downtime, Kilian enjoys spending time with his family, riding the rollercoasters with his daughters at Busch Gardens and going to Sanibel Island.

At the end of the day, he is grateful for the opportunities to make a difference in everything he does.

"My life is a culmination of being so fortunate and getting to be around so many great people," he says.