How Horse Training Empowers Criminal Justice Professor with Teaching
Meet Dr. Christine Sereni-Massinger, a criminal justice professor with Saint Leo University who loves preparing her students for future success.
Dr. Christine Sereni-Massinger has had a varied career working in law and currently as a criminal justice professor for Saint Leo University. She attributes a lot of her success to the unique bond with the creatures she has such a passion for – horses.
The 55-year-old hails from Havertown, PA. She and her husband, Doug, reside in Ocala, FL on 15 acres. They have 16 "children," including nine horses, three dogs, and four cats. Her husband works as a patent and copyright attorney. In addition to her teaching role, she is a professional horse trainer.
The associate professor of graduate criminal justice in Saint Leo's Department of Public Safety Administration explains why she and her husband have such a love for animals.
"Many of our animals are rescues," she says. "We are big into rescuing and I also donate a lot of time to horse rescues in the area, in particular the Horse Protection Association of Florida."
For her undergraduate studies, she earned a bachelor's in literature from Saint Joseph's University. Her law degree is from Widener University in Delaware.
Sereni-Massinger began her career as a prosecutor at age 24. Three years later when she was only 27, she was elected as the youngest female judge in Pennsylvania.
"The person I ran against had been an attorney for a long time," she explains. "I had to knock on every door in town to get all of the votes I was able to receive."
She describes what it was like presiding over a courtroom.
"The challenge about being a judge is that you're not going to make 50 percent of the people in your courtroom happy," she says.
Her role as a judge spanned nine years. She admits holding this position was very stressful at times.
"I constantly felt like I had to be on high alert," she confides. "But at the same time, I knew I was making a difference."
Despite the pressure, she loved the duties of the work.
"I've always enjoyed what we call 'rules of evidence' in the courtroom. The critical thinking involved in ruling on objections is very thought-provoking and challenging. You have to consider all sides and then make the most appropriate decision."
Along with her work on the bench, she was allowed to practice law outside of the county in which she worked as a judge. This included some criminal defense work in Philadelphia.
"I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. I loved doing jury trials because I am very passionate about the law."
On top of both of those roles, she managed to find time to get into teaching. At 28, she started instructing undergraduate courses at Widener University's location in Chester, PA.
"I thought to myself that I really enjoyed teaching," she explains. "I wasn't sure how I was doing as a teacher, but my students voted me the Distinguished Faculty of the Year and I later received the Outstanding Faculty Award. It was a great feeling getting these awards and made me realize that I must be doing something right in the classroom."
She points out how vastly different it was presiding over a courtroom versus a classroom.
"Compared to the courtroom, it was a different feeling going into a classroom because hopefully as a professor, you are making all of your students feel satisfied with their education."
She and her husband then moved to Ocala where they practiced law together. She started teaching business law graduate courses for Webster University as an adjunct.
Sereni-Massinger discovered Saint Leo University in 2009.
"I was doing some research on schools with criminal justice degree programs and Saint Leo popped up," she recalls. "I first spoke with Dr. Robert Diemer and got an excellent impression of the university and its criminal justice programs. I liked his manner and I felt very comfortable with him right off the bat. He asked me to meet him at University Campus. Dr. Peter Wubbenhorst was also there. As soon as we sat down, we began speaking the 'criminal law language' and I felt like I fit right in."
Diemer then asked her about her interest in creating a few new courses, including Criminal Advocacy and Judicial Procedure.
"It was quite an honor to get to create new courses," she says.
She began her Saint Leo teaching career as an adjunct instructor and then earned a full-time role in 2012. Early on, she taught undergraduate criminal justice courses primarily at Saint Leo's Ocala Education Center. Since 2015, she has mainly taught graduate criminal justice courses online.
She has had the opportunity to teach about 15 different courses for Saint Leo University. These include Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Legal Issues in Criminal Justice Administration, and Fundamentals of Civil Litigation. She describes her approach to the classroom.
"I like to use the Socratic method. I want my students to feel as if they're providing the answers to questions and not being given the answers. I try to make them feel as comfortable as possible so that they're not afraid to make mistakes. I'd rather a student try and make a mistake than not try at all. There is a saying that, 'You're either winning or learning.'"
Overall, she considers her teaching style to be very engaging.
"I am very interactive with my students. Using reality-based scenarios in one of my classes, I ask students to play the roles of attorneys. They will first argue as a prosecutor and then as a criminal defense attorney."
In addition to teaching, she serves on the committees for several students in the Doctor of Criminal Justice degree program at Saint Leo.
While she is an instructor, Sereni-Massinger wants students to understand that she is on the same playing field as them.
"I learn as much from them as they learn from me. I'm not on a different level with any of my students because I'm always learning how to become a better instructor just like they're learning to be the best students they can be."
In her eyes, leaving a lasting impression on her students means the world to her.
"I enjoy being a chapter in the book of a student's life," she explains. "It really does mean so much to me to be able to make a difference. I will have students I taught five years ago text me to wish me a 'happy new year.' It's wonderful to feel like you are not only remembered but also appreciated."
In terms of research, her interest has been in the area of critical thinking for law enforcement officers with a focus on strategies to create a better learning environment for new officers coming out of the academy.
"I believe that there is often more emphasis put on tactical skills versus critical thinking skills. We need to focus a lot more on how critical thinking plays into the decisions officers make when on the job."
When not wearing her teaching hat, Sereni-Massinger is a professional horse trainer and got to train under the distinguished Parelli Natural Horsemanship program.
"It's a world-renowned program started by Pat Parelli, one of the most highly respected horsemen of all time," she explains. "He is the real 'horse whisperer.'"
The study of horse psychology and behavior has always fascinated her, especially when it comes to natural horsemanship.
"Traditional horse training is very mechanical. It is less concerned with how the horse feels. In natural horsemanship, we're very aware of what the horse is saying back to us. Essentially, we are getting them to partner with us."
She adds that there are many parallels between horses and people, a dynamic that has benefited her as a college professor.
"There are so many overlaps between horses and humans. Horses have certain 'horsenalities.' When you can effectively interact with a horse, you can do the same with another human. Working with them has really helped me with my teaching in terms of interacting with my students."
To further demonstrate her love of horses, Sereni-Massinger has published a book series for children called The Adventures of Speedy the Wonder Horse.
"The story is based on one of our horses named Godspeed whose nickname is Speedy. He is a Thoroughbred and is now 21 years old."
When asked about personal goals, her attitude is to savor every moment she gets in life.
"My goal every day is learning to appreciate each day that I have on this planet," she says.
LEARN MORE: Learn more about Dr. Sereni-Massinger in her faculty bio.
Check out the short video below of Dr. Sereni-Massinger riding one of her horses, Ave', while another horse, Little Boon, accompanies "at liberty." There is a complex sideways request at the end.