In the summer of 2016, following her freshman year in which she majored in biology as a pre-med student with the dream of becoming an orthodontist, Criminal Justice master’s program graduate Tatiyonna Hawkins went on a mission trip to Haiti as a mentor to a group of high school students. It was her second trip to the island, the first occurring several years earlier in the aftermath of a massive earthquake that had devastated Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The first trip, as part of a similar mission while still in high school, established her bond with the nation and its people as she helped to rebuild schools and hospitals. This second trip altered not only her worldview, but her professional goals.
“I got to know some of the legal officials there,” she said. “They didn’t have a functioning justice system. Their government didn’t have a forensics program, and I just became super interested in forensics.”
This newfound passion for forensics, the use of science and technology to investigate and establish facts in criminal or civil courts of law, allowed Hawkins to pair her science background with her growing desire for ethics and justice in society.
“From that moment, I wanted to pursue a criminal justice degree,” she said. “I want to create culture of accountability. Our justice system lacks accountability. I’m a firm believer that representation matters in criminal justice."
A Spirit for Community
The drive to give back to her community was instilled in Hawkins when she was young. From the time she was 11 years old, she would accompany her parents to a homeless shelter in her hometown of Dallas, Texas, to provide meals and assistance to the individuals who needed help during the holidays.
“Giving back is core to who I am,” Hawkins said. “A lot of my volunteer work goes toward underrepresented populations and minority populations and advocating for people of color. For me, representation matters.”
People of color having a presence and voice was always important to her, and it was a driving force behind her desire to become a doctor while researching different careers in high school.
“I found that the percentage of black doctors in the world is very low,” she said. “That’s what fueled me to go into orthodontia before transitioning to criminal justice.”
Charting Her Professional Path
While Hawkins had the requisite science background to apply for forensics jobs after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in December 2018, her lack of experience in the field led her to continue her education in the OU Extended Campus Criminal Justice master’s program.
“I had decided that I was going to go to work full time because I wanted that experience,” she said. “I didn’t want to just be going to school. I wanted to get a year of work experience under my belt, and the OU Extended Campus program made it easy to do because the courses were all online.”
After graduation, Hawkins returned to Dallas and began working in insurance law for State Farm, where she investigates fraud in medical billing practices from providers and insurers that over-treat patients in the state of Michigan.
“My job is to find fraud in treatment and billing practices,” she said. “When we do, we cut off their benefits, and they sue us, so I have to travel to attend trials and defend State Farm for why the benefits were cut off.”
I want to be the voice for those who don’t have voices. I want to be able to articulate issues that my people and other people are feeling. I want to be able to talk and help people understand. I’m not afraid to have difficult conversations.
In this role, she often finds herself in the witness chair and giving depositions.
“That has given me a different perspective on things. Even though they are civil law cases, my education has given me a lot of perspective on this job because the litigation processes are exactly the same. It’s made it easier to not only detect fraud, but to defend the company once we take action to prevent it.”
While she enjoys her current job, she wants to use her knowledge and experience to do something more purposeful for her community. Her goal is to one day become a forensics law enforcement and corrections compliance consultant.
“I want to go into facilities and forensics labs to consult and implement different practices and processes for ethics and compliance,” Hawkins said. “During my time in the criminal justice program, I took multiple classes on policy and ethics and compliance and evidence-based programming, and I didn’t have that knowledge before.”
She believes choosing the OU Extended Campus Criminal Justice program was one of the best decisions she has made in her burgeoning career.
“It challenged me so much,” she said. “It helped me develop discipline and a sense of consistency because I had to sit down and focus on my studies while also working full time. My classmates were all super experienced, and I had just finished my undergrad work, so it was a little intimidating at first, but I found it to be super rewarding because I was able to learn so much from them, along with the professors.”
Her time in the program provided a broader context for volunteer experiences with the district attorney’s office in Rockwall, Texas, while a senior in high school and with the Norman Police Department’s Investigations Center, where she saw how real-world processes and procedures were put into action. The experience helped her begin to develop her own ideas for how the criminal justice system could be re-imagined to provide greater benefit to victims of crime and domestic abuse.
“I’m super interested in compliance and ethics,” she said. “My Ethics in Criminal Justice and the Interdisciplinary Studies courses were foundational because they reinforced that I could put my biology background and personal background to use in this new field I wanted to go into. Policy Development in Criminal Justice taught me a lot about research and evidence-based programming, which I think is super important when you want to implement and enforce change. Having that knowledge of what didn’t work in the past, and what did work but needed a few tweaks, really helped me learn the processes I need to take to implement change.
“Our final assignment in my Police Leadership course was to outline an evidence-based program and go through all stages of investigation, monitoring, collecting data and writing how our program is different from other programs and would enforce change. It forced me to write policy and put all the pieces together. I still have that project and reference it a lot with any type of evidence-based program that I’m researching and looking to implement in my own job.”
Empathy and Accountability
Hawkins’ interest in ethics, compliance and evidence-based policy reform seems almost prescient in the current landscape in which our criminal justice system finds itself in the wake of a monumental shift in how Americans have begun to view law enforcement during the spring and summer of 2020. In a time when a majority of people in the country are looking to new voices and new ideas about how to update the way the criminal justice system interacts with society at large, she hopes to be one of the leaders from her generation who embrace the challenge.
“I’m a leader in my community,” she said, “so I feel like by finding a position where I have a voice and the ability to be a change agent, I’m in a place to do the work that needs to be done for my community.”
As a long-time member of the NAACP in Texas and nationally, and a member of the Next Generation Action Group, she is a vocal advocate for change.
“It’s made up of people my age,” she said of Next Generation. “A lot of different professionals with a lot of different backgrounds and stories. We facilitate programs on diversity and inclusion, as well as hosting fundraisers, volunteer activities and drives to give back to our community. We were also active in some of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Dallas.
In order to have change, you have to have respect and empathy. A lot of people in my generation—of all races, backgrounds and ethnicities—we have that empathy.
“As far as my generation goes, we’re different. We’re not going to settle or just sit back. We are brave, and a lot of people in my generation have educations and different experiences that have really fueled a fire. We’re not going to stop until we see a change.”
Hawkins believes that the biggest impact can come from the simplest of actions—giving people a voice and then actually listening to what they have to say.
“I want to be the voice for those who don’t have voices,” she said. “I want to be able to articulate issues that my people and other people are feeling. I want to be able to talk and help people understand. I’m not afraid to have difficult conversations.
“It’s okay to disagree with people and have different beliefs. Just because someone has different beliefs than you doesn’t invalidate what you believe, whether your beliefs are based on experience, upbringing or research. Just having different beliefs and values, there’s always a way to find commonality. I meet lots of people who are different than me on the outside, but after sitting down and talking with them, we were more alike than either one of us thought. But that’s just part of being human and empathetic towards others. Being able to embrace our differences and similarities is huge. I’m super passionate about being able to bridge that gap between communities.”
The coming together of people from all walks of life during the weeks of Black Lives Matter events that have taken place across the nation and the world since the murder of George Floyd has given Hawkins hope that the issues of racism and inequality that have plagued America can eventually be resolved.
“In order to have change, you have to have respect and empathy,” she said. “A lot of people in my generation—of all races, backgrounds and ethnicities—we have that empathy. We have the desire to change. We see there are issues. We see that things are not necessarily equal. We see that things may be broken, and they always have been. We’re not afraid to ask questions and push the envelope to get answers to our questions and figure out what we need to do to enforce that type of change. I think my generation is a different breed because we’re not going to stop until we see changes.”
Hawkins is currently applying to the criminal justice doctoral program at California University of Pennsylvania, in a quest for more knowledge about the practical side of the change initiatives she hopes to initiate. But she holds dear the time she spent at OU discovering the path that she now walks.
“OU was probably the best decision I could have made,” she said. “Being able to experience everything that I experienced at OU fueled a lot of what I want to do. I’m grateful for the community and the friends that I gained and all the professors and peers and mentors. I’ll forever be Sooner Bred.”