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Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.
Robert Rowley didn't exactly take the traditional route to college. In fact, you might say he has never had a “traditional” college experience.
“My family didn’t have the money for me to go off to school or venture across Europe after graduation. I worked out of high school full time, got burned out and joined the U.S. Army at 20. I did that, got hired to law enforcement, got married and went on with life,” said Rowley.
He may not have taken a traditional route to Arizona State University, but now at age 46, Rowley is the fall 2017 outstanding graduate of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at the Downtown Phoenix campus.
During his stint in law enforcement in his native California, Rowley decided he wanted to go for his bachelor’s degree. He found an online program and would often chip away at coursework late at night while stuck in the car on patrol.
It paid off, though. Rowley made his way up to deputy sheriff, and that’s where he stumbled into the world of emergency preparedness through coordinating search and rescue work in northern California.
Rowley had a knack for it, and when an emergency manager position opened up 2006, he went for it even though it was a profession still in transition following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Eventually, his role expanded, and Rowley exited law enforcement to stay with his newfound job.
After moving to Arizona, Rowley began eyeing the Maricopa County emergency management director position. It was expected to open up within a few years, and he began exploring options to make himself a prime candidate. That included earning a graduate degree.
Video of Arizona State University Outstanding Graduate Fall 2017: Robert Rowley
A friend told him he might be eligible for a Post-9/11 GI Bill, so he looked into it and discovered he still had two years of eligibility left. With the discovery of ASU’s emergency management and homeland security master’s degree program in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions and online class flexibility, Rowley decided the ASU was the perfect fit.
The twist in the story is the Maricopa County position opened up a short time after he started his degree, and Rowley got it. Once the degree was unnecessary for immediate career advancement, it took on new meaning.
“I started working with Dr. Gerber, and we began looking into how we could create pathways into the profession for graduates,” Rowley said. “My final project was to create a disaster response exercise that students can complete as a team — give students relevant experience to help them in the real world. Help them interview for these jobs.
"We need younger generations coming in who have fresh perspectives and a passion for the field. Helping them prepare for real-world jobs is the best thing we can do,” he said.
“We’re very happy to recognize Rob with this award,” said Brian Gerber, director of the Emergency Management & Homeland Security program in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. "Rob is a key figure in the Arizona emergency management community, and he exemplifies a commitment to public service.”
ASU's emergency management and homeland security program is aimed at practitioners throughout the nation. Gerber says graduate students serve their communities and the nation in profoundly important ways related to emergencies, disasters, public safety and security.
He credits Rowley for creating a program within his department to help train the next generation of emergency managers.
“One important innovation Rob has set up in his office is an advanced internship program to guide the professional development of future emergency managers," Gerber said. "This collaboration between Rob and the Maricopa County emergency management office and ASU is of great benefit and advances a mission of preparing future leaders in the field.”
He already had the practical experience, but Rowley said the degree program really gave him insight into the theoretical side of his field. He was particularly fascinated by what makes a community resilient after a disaster.
Rowley stresses that citizens being adequately prepared to handle an emergency is key to surviving it.
“Whenever there’s a big disaster on the news, it’s usually to the point where people are without power, food and water. You hear about local and federal agencies struggling to get supplies to people,” said Rowley. “If everyone would take responsibility to be prepared for themselves and their families for three days, it would take a huge strain off government resources.”
One of the benefits of earning his graduate degree at ASU is his involvement with the Pat Tillman Veterans Center. It provided opportunities to get more involved in ASU life and to make a lifelong connection to the university.
“I started getting invited to veterans events, and even got to unfurl the flag on field at the veterans’ football game,” Rowley said. “I went from being someone attending online to feeling part of the whole ASU thing, and hopefully my boys will grow up being in love with ASU like I am now.”