(April 10, 2019) — A tragic and personal loss changed the course of Kelli Owen’s educational and professional path when she was just 16 years old, and she has spent the last 22 years working to protect, to serve and to teach in the field of criminal justice as a result.
Georgia Piedmont Technical College (GPTC) recognized her dedication recently and selected her as the school’s nominee for Georgia’s Rick Perkins Award for Excellence in Technical Instruction. The announcement was made at an awards luncheon in Clarkston on Jan. 24. Owen, of McDonough, is the college’s Criminal Justice and Forensics programs director, a position she has held for five years.
Owen says as a teenager she thought she knew what she wanted to do with her life, to follow in her father’s footsteps as a pharmacist and return to work with him in their hometown of Thomaston. But at 16, she received a telephone call early one Sunday morning that ultimately would alter her future. The voice on the other end of the line was her father’s, telling her that her best friend had been murdered.
“It was in the midst of that pain and grief that everything changed for me. That was when I knew I would work somewhere within the criminal justice field one day,” says Owen.
She graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1995 and later with a master’s degree specializing in justice administration from Columbus State University. Owen was hired by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), where she worked as both an undercover narcotics agent and a special agent, primarily from the Conyers field office.
“This was where I found my passion for criminal investigations. And this is also where I began teaching fellow officers.”
As a training assistant at the Georgia State Patrol, an investigator of child abuse and sexual exploitation cases with the GBI, and a detective and Internet Crimes Against Children coordinator for the Henry County Police Department, Owen built upon her list of experiences that she could share in the classroom.
In 2011, while also teaching and coordinating courses for the Georgia Police Academy at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, she accepted a part-time adjunct position teaching criminal justice at one of GPTC’s sister schools in the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG), Southern Crescent Tech.
“It was during this time that I truly realized the impact I could have on students seeking a career within the criminal justice field,” says Owen. “That was all it took for me to be sold on technical education.”
She says she made the transition to full-time teaching at GPTC in 2014 because technical education gives students the opportunities that many of them would never have on their own.
“Technical education provides students with the skills needed to be successful in the workforce. And when our workforce is thriving, so is our economy,” adds Owen. “We’re always going to need police officers, correctional officers, probation officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys. So it’s a job where you are guaranteed employment.”
Owen says she likes that the college offers so many options for students to get an education — from day and evening classes on multiple campuses to online classes, as well as dual enrollment options for high school students to earn high school and technical college credit toward graduation simultaneously.
“I love working here. It gives me the opportunity to interact with students from all walks of life. I have students who are in high school, students who are fresh out of high school, and I even have students who are in their 60s,” Owen adds. “Every day I get to come to work and share my experiences with the very people who will help shape our society in the future. I can’t imagine a more rewarding job or one that has more of a long-term impact on our communities.”
She says one of the biggest challenges in teaching students about law enforcement is what criminal justice professionals call “the CSI effect.” This recent phenomenon affects both students and trial jurors alike, one in which they expect all evidence to work together perfectly to solve a case in an hour, like it does on television. Owen adds that she knows a student is really invested in a career in criminal justice when they understand that investigations are hard work and require more of a process.
She also says she’s up for the challenge and has set a goal to double student enrollment in criminal justice and forensics over the next few years at GPTC. Owen believes one of the greatest areas of growth could come from professionals who are already working in criminal justice but want a chance to advance to a higher position, one that requires additional education with a specialized certificate, diploma or associate degree — all options available at Georgia Piedmont Tech.
Of her recent accolade as GPTC’s Instructor of the Year, Owen says, “I am extremely honored…shocked, completely shocked. The fact that I get to represent a college that is striving to make everything better for all of its students, I think, is a huge honor.” Owen was also nominated for the award in 2018.
Named in memory of Thomas “Rick” Perkins, an instructor at West Central Technical College who received the Department of Technical & Adult Education Commissioner’s Award of Excellence prior to his untimely death, the award is the Technical College System of Georgia’s version of an “instructor of the year” honor. It is presented to the person who has shown the most dedication to the job, commitment to students, and skill in the classroom.
Annually, all 22 technical colleges in the TCSG nominate an instructor to represent their colleges for the statewide honor. Nominees then compete on a regional basis. Local winners serve as ambassadors to their communities on behalf of their colleges. Owen will represent GPTC in its service area of DeKalb, Newton and Rockdale counties. The state Rick Perkins Award winner serves as an ambassador for technical education in Georgia making public appearances throughout the year.
Owen competed in regional judging in early March at Lanier Technical College in Gainesville with seven of her peers from the TCSG North Region. Nine statewide finalists, three each from the three TCSG regions, will be announced at the TCSG Leadership Summit in Atlanta in April. A panel of leaders from the business, industry and government sectors will conduct interviews and choose one to be the statewide 2019 Rick Perkins Award winner.
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