Diligent and persevering against the odds, criminal justice Professor Cathryn Lavery, Ph.D., was the first woman to graduate from Iona’s Criminal Justice MS program in 1993. With an impressive list of degrees, including a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice with specialization in Forensic Psychology and Ethics from CUNY, Dr. Lavery had to persist through the difficulties that came with being diagnosed with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. She recalls, “I was told by guidance counselor in high school to get an 'Mrs. Degree’ at local community college.” Instead, with the help of her parents’ support and guidance, she went on to earn a BA in Sociology from Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
“In college, I acquired an internship at a local Planned Parenthood doing AIDS/HIV testing/counseling because at the time, the epidemic was growing at a tremendous rate. In addition, I was doing an internship at the Worcester jail. After graduating, PP hired me and I received external training on sexual victimization and trauma counseling. I began to counsel clients and routinely saw juvenile females from local halfway houses and detention centers. From that experience, I began to notice issues with mental health that existed the jail and prison system,” says Dr. Lavery.
Her mother, Barbara Conte Lavery, who worked in student development at Iona during the early ’90s, suggested she apply to a part-time administrative assistant position at the College. She took the opportunity, and soon after was promoted to full-time, where she then decided to pursue a master’s degree. Though she first began as an MBA student, she remembers when her path shifted.
“By sheer coincidence, I was sitting eating lunch outside of the ginkgo tree when a priest came up to me and started talking. That was Father Joseph DeSanto, PhD, who, along with Dr. Thomas Kissane, had created the Criminal Justice Department here at Iona in the ’70s. He mentioned they were starting an MS program in Criminal Justice and I may want to take a class. From my prior work and internship experience, I thought it would be interesting and I did.”
She ended up being the first woman to graduate from the MS program in Criminal Justice. Soon after, she began teaching and was encouraged to apply to the Graduate Center/CUNY for a Ph.D. in criminal justice. As part of the graduate program, students were placed as professors and research assistants. Dr. Lavery worked with the Sociology and Government Departments while completing her dissertation, which focused on sexual assault in colleges.
In 2002, she took a job at Sacred Heart University, but after missing her research work, and being close to New York City, she found her way back to Iona, this time as a tenure-track professor in the Criminal Justice Department. She went on to construct new courses and rebuild the criminal justice club.
Among many accolades, including being the first woman and educator to be honored at the Detective Barney Ferguson Legacy May Day Annual Award in 2019, with prior honorees including: Congressman Peter King, the late Detective Stephen McDonald, Senator Martin Golden, she is most proud of her creation of the Department of Criminal Justice & Sociology’s Career Mentor Dinner (co-sponsored with the criminal justice club at Iona).
“When I was first told to run the criminal justice club 10 years ago, I had virtually no contacts in New York at that time. I had my mother, myself, students and my neighbors make dishes and organized a ‘mentor event’. In 2006 we had 8-10 mentors, mostly local friends from high school doing me a favor, and maybe 25 students. In the spring of 2018, we had over 120 mentors who are leaders in their field and over 300 students attend. I make sure each area of the field of criminal justice is represented and open the event up to other majors as well.”
Among other research projects, Dr. Lavery just completed and published a research project with Riker's island with her colleague Dr. Kimberly Spanjol (Criminal Justice & Sociology) and Dr. Heath Grant of John Jay/CUNY. She advises students to find their passion and not let yourself be limited by anything.
“You must be flexible, accommodating and opening to learning new things all the time. You must be open to criticism and getting a lot wrong. When I was trying to break into the field I was told over and over again – you're not police, you're not a lawyer, you're not in corrections – you have absolutely no credibility. Now, through networking, my research and my outside opportunities I have commissioners, chiefs and significant criminal justice practitioners on speed dial. I consider myself extremely lucky to be surrounded by such innovative and respected individuals in this ever-changing discipline. This is one of those unique, interdisciplinary fields where if given solid mentoring, being passionate about the subject matter and being open to understanding the complex issues, and one can find their niche.”