First students graduate from Penn State Lehigh Valley’s criminal justice program

a male and female college student smiling

Matt Cascioli and Keyxe Rodriguez-Soto were the first two students to graduate from PSU-LV’s criminal justice program, now in its second year. The students were honored with a small celebration following their Senior Seminar research presentations.

Credit: Deb Dreisbach

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — At Penn State Lehigh Valley (PSU-LV)’s spring commencement this May, two trailblazing students will be among the graduates.

Matt Cascioli of Palmer Township and Keyxe Rodriguez-Soto of Allentown are the first two students to complete the criminal justice program at PSU-LV. The program itself is still new, wrapping up its second year. Both students started their academic careers at PSU-LV in other programs but decided to switch majors.

Rodriguez started as a business major because it was the closest PSU-LV had to a law or criminal justice-focused program at the time. She didn’t hesitate to switch after she spoke with Debra Dreisbach, assistant teaching professor and criminal justice program coordinator at PSU-LV who brings her own 25-plus years of experience in law enforcement and national security to the program.

“I do like business, but then I met Deb. Her teaching style and everything she said about the program was what I wanted to do,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve had some interesting classes — it’s been different for sure. It’s different from the business major. I liked all the criminal justice classes, and I actually wish I’d had more time to take more classes, because I switched majors when I was a junior.”

Dreisbach’s goal is to expose the students in the criminal justice program to as many different aspects of the field as she can. Students viewed autopsies. They attended a courtroom hearing. They heard from speakers who work in corrections and different aspects of law enforcement. Last summer, Dreisbach took a group of students to Sicily to learn about the birthplace of organized crime.

“There were so many different opportunities for learning both in and out of the classroom,” Dreisbach said.

At every juncture, Dreisbach encourages students to build their professional networks and be open to career possibilities. Research is also an important component. The students presented their culminating research projects from the capstone course, Senior Seminar, on April 23 to an audience of family members and campus supporters.

The program exceeded Cascioli’s expectations.

“For a campus our size, and a new program, I got a very unique perspective on the field,” Cascioli said, noting a highlight was attending a presentation by author and psychologist Katherine Ramsland, whose research focuses on serial killers. “Students have the opportunity to learn from experts in the field,” Cascioli said. “And Deb herself brings a ton of information and knowledge, and will always put students in the best position to enhance their learning.”

As a final milestone, Cascioli received the Distinguished Criminal Justice Graduating Senior Award, an honor given to a criminal justice student with both a high GPA and involvement on campus.

Rodriguez echoed Cascioli’s comments: “For me a highlight was Deb herself. I like how she is very inclusive and brings in speakers from different aspects of the field. We had a speaker from SELF who is a member of the Hispanic community who talked about how she is giving back after being incarcerated.”

She added, “Even though I liked business, criminal justice gave me more of an insight into what I want to do in the future. It’s more inclusive and speaks to what is going on in the world. It also get you out of your comfort zone, which is good if you’re shy like me.”

The students are going on different professional paths. Cascioli will be Discharge Case Manager for Lehigh County Hospital Opiate Support Team, supervised by Mid-Atlantic Rehabilitative Services (MARS) in Fountain Hill, a full-time role that grew out of his internship with the agency; Rodriguez will be starting law school after graduation and will be focusing on criminal and immigration law. She interned with the Lehigh County District Attorney’s office, a position that stemmed from a class visit to watch a courtroom hearing.

“Criminal justice has such a broad base, you can really do anything you want with it,” Dreisbach said. “Here we have two students in the same program, doing completely different things.”

The first graduating class left an impression on Dreisbach.

“Both students were leaders in the program. There will be a real hole there when they leave," Dreisbach said. "They worked with me all the time, I saw them all the time. Both were really great examples of the program.”

Visit the criminal justice program website for more information, or contact Dreisbach at [email protected].