From a young age, Cassandra Libal ’19 knew she wanted to create change in her community. Growing up in inner-city Milwaukee, she was raised by a single mother who wasn’t able to provide financial support for higher education.
To pursue her dream, she applied for a paid apprenticeship right out of high school: Milwaukee’s Police Aide program. Earning an income while she developed useful skills for a career in law enforcement, she performed clerical and support work for two years. When she turned 21, she joined the Police Academy to complete training.
Since becoming an officer in 1997, Libal has worked in nearly every aspect of law enforcement, from general patrol to narcotics. Rising through the ranks to captain and serving as the commander of community outreach and education, she helped bridge the gap between the Milwaukee community and police officers. “I loved overseeing our community outreach efforts, which circles back to the reason I wanted a career in law enforcement: to pay it forward and make a difference,” she explains.
Because she hadn’t followed a traditional education path—and because of a fluctuating work schedule based on overtime, court hearings, and shift changes—higher education for Libal began at a technical college with an associate degree and two certificate programs. Later, she also enrolled in a few training courses with Northwestern’s Center for Public Safety.When she felt the time was right for her bachelor’s, she found an online program that let her apply work experiences and existing credits toward a degree. “I spent my career in law enforcement balancing between working full time and going to school,” she explains. “I’m a constant learner and always looking for growth opportunities. I really liked the format and curriculum that Northwestern used when I went through their public safety training. When I decided to pursue my graduate degree, they were high on my list of options.”
Recognizing that communication had been a challenge for her in the past, Libal hoped that learning more about it would help bridge that gap. She also realized she was fast approaching 25 years with the Milwaukee Police Department, anticipating retirement in the near future—and she wanted to be ready for the next step in her career.
As she started researching ways to broaden her horizons, she discovered the MS in Communication’s Hybrid Leadership Program—and liked the idea of completing the majority of coursework online while still having occasional face-to-face interaction. As a full-time employee and mother, the program’s one-year timeline also appealed to her.
“This degree was something I needed,” says Libal. “It was the tool I wanted in my toolbox no matter where I landed professionally or personally. Communication was a challenge I needed to overcome, but the program went so far beyond that.”
She says the diversity of her cohort added another dimension to the experience as she learned alongside medical, business, and marketing professionals. “In addition to helping me establish elegant communication strategies, it also gave me a network that was just as valuable as what I was learning in the classroom,” she says.
A few months after she graduated, Libal retired from the Milwaukee Police Department. Newly equipped with her MS in Communication, she felt confident in her communication abilities—and ready to take on whatever opportunity came her way, whether it was continuing in law enforcement with another agency, teaching, or entering the private sector.
“Northwestern does a great job of cultivating collaboration,” says Libal. “Communication lines were always there. They fostered that spirit of teamwork, even though we were in different time zones and facing other challenges outside the program. I wouldn’t have been as successful if it wasn’t for the way the program was structured—and the staff was there to support us through all of that.”
This June, Libal started down a new path: She joined Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management as deputy director. The organization’s motto is to help people in extraordinary times. In this role, she drives and oversees large-scale change to ensure personal safety for community members.
“The skills I learned at Northwestern have already been very relevant during this time as we all enter our new normal,” she explains. “Business aside, how we conduct ourselves in every arena is going to be impacted by how we communicate. No matter what your profession is, the information you learn here is universal.”