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First-year and Grad Students Take on Counterterrorism


It’s a course of study that might not have existed 20 years ago, but a changing world has put the subject of counterterrorism front and center, and literally on the map, for a number of Nichols undergraduate and graduate students.

Allison McDowell-Smith teaching counterterrorism studies

“It is necessary to understand the radicalization process, ideologies, security measures, and the role of social media in the formation and implementation of violent extremism within our current society,” said Allison McDowell-Smith, who developed the College’s new master’s program in counterterrorism studies and the new International Terrorism course for 36 first-year undergraduates.

“There’s plenty of discussion. They’re very into the subject,” McDowell-Smith said of the latter group, adding that the course takes them through a country-by-country examination of violent extremism and its causes.  

Along the way, McDowell-Smith has emphasized multiple approaches to dealing with terrorism beyond military responses. “ISIS is still on international social media,” she said, noting that the group has lost considerable territory in the past several years. “There’s still a virtual territory for individual beliefs. How do you change that mindset?”

The questions and lessons of the course have not been lost on students. Criminal justice major James Shea is concerned about “how people are radicalized through social media, and how they can be radicalized so early in their lives to kill others.”

“There isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to understanding terrorists, whether they are struggling with their families, the economy, finding meaning in their lives.  And, of course, there’s the religious angle,” added Justin Carlson, who is double majoring in economics and international business.

In June 2017, Nichols launched the Master of Science in Counterterrorism (MSC), the first graduate program in the United States with an exclusive focus on violent extremism. The 30-credit MSC curriculum includes courses on international violent extremism, cyber security, border security, and the media’s impact on the situation.

“We wanted to come up with something unique,” McDowell-Smith said, “and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has called counterterrorism its top priority.”

Senior Devon Perillo

The graduate program also offers 4+1 option that allows Nichols students to take MSC courses in their senior year before proceeding to a year of graduate study.  Senior Devon Perillo will take his first MSC course this spring and observes that he has come to the right place at the right time.  

“My original major was going to be counterterrorism,” Perillo explained.  “But I couldn’t find schools that offered it.”

Besides McDowell-Smith, who this term is teaching the graduate courses Homegrown Violent Extremism and Homeland Security: Terrorism, the MSC faculty includes a retired brigadier general, a former DEA agent, and a former police officer who serves as criminal justice chair at Worcester State University.

“We’re putting students on the leading edge of preparing for careers,” McDowell-Smith pointed out, adding that many of those careers are relatively new.  

Before the 9/11 attacks in New York City, she said, “We never thought about violent extremism being a major concern. Now, there are so many fields—agents and researchers for the CIA, FBI, and ATF, as well as advisors to state and local law enforcement.”

Senior writer Ronald Schachter is a member of the Nichols College faculty.