With a busy career in law enforcement and 11 children at home, Mike Fritz never expected study abroad to be part of his online criminal justice degree program.
Neither did military spouse Katelyn Flanagan, who is also earning an online bachelor's degree in criminal justice while stationed in Germany with her husband.
But that changed this spring, when the two online students traveled to Israel with Saint Leo University professor Robert Sullivan for an intensive, eight-day course focused on counterterrorism tactics and methods.
"Professor Sullivan said it would be the trip of a lifetime and it was," says Fritz. "I'd do it again next year if I could; what I got out of the experience for that one week is priceless."
Only U.S. university to offer course
It was Sullivan's third year teaching the advanced homeland security course in Israel, and the fifth year that Saint Leo has partnered with Security Solutions International to make the experience available to students – both traditional and online.
"We are the only university in the U.S. that offers this counterterrorism trip," Sullivan says. "The Israelis have decades of experience in protecting their citizens, and what they have learned is clearly worth knowing."
Ten Saint Leo students took part in this year's program, as well as eight law enforcement professionals from around the country, including four homeland security specialists and former FBI agent William Dyson, who coincidentally wrote the book Sullivan uses in the three-credit-hour course.
Unique opportunity for online students
For online students Flanagan and Fritz, the trip provided an unexpected opportunity to engage with Saint Leo students and faculty.
"It was nice to rub shoulders with other students – to talk to them eyeball-to-eyeball about their studies and their careers," says Fritz. "Sometimes as an online student you can feel like an island. This was a great experience and an opportunity to network with people from all over."
Additionally, Flanagan says the trip motivated her even further to advance her studies in preparation for a career in criminal justice.
"Now I am more motivated than ever to complete my degree and start my master's online," she says. "The trip made me realize how important it is to be prepared – to understand the threats and act properly to avoid greater devastation."
Learning from the experts
The group's itinerary included Haifa, the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea and Israel's northern border, where participants learned about counterterrorism tactics and measures from experts, including the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli National Police, the Massad and Israeli Special Forces.
In the country's northern district, the group visited Ma'a lot, where Islamic terrorists killed more than 20 school children in 1974. The tragedy gave birth to Israel's counter-terror units and a new approach to dealing with terrorists.
"Today some of the school's teachers have weapons and the school is gated off, but we have learned it may not be enough," Flanagan says.
"This wasn't just some course to go through," Fritz adds. "This is real stuff – these are problems that exist. This is a country where the atmosphere can change in a split second."
Fritz recounts the group's visit to a trauma center on the Lebanese border where an underground bomb shelter, painted to give the illusion of being above ground, stands ready to accommodate all of the hospital's patients and staff should the region come under attack.
Memorable experience in the Holy Land
While learning about terrorism was Fritz's primary motivation for making the trip, there was another draw for the 43-year-old husband and father with a strong Catholic faith.
"It was mostly about terrorism, but also about being in the cradle of Christianity," he says.
The group's itinerary included stops at memorable sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Wailing Wall and the Jordan River.
"It was an amazing trip," 25-year-old Flanagan says. She describes climbing to the top of an inactive volcano overlooking the Israeli and Syrian border and hearing the sounds of Syria's ongoing civil war in the background.
"To any online student considering the trip, I'd definitely say go for it! I have loved Saint Leo from the start. This experience made me feel even more connected to the university."
Image Credits: Sean Pavone on Shutterstock.com; and courtesy Katelyn Flanagan, Mike Fritz and Robert Sullivan