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Chris Easton has worn a lot of different hats during the 20 years since he joined the University of Virginia Police Department.
He’s been a patrol officer, an investigator and a member of a regional task force on crimes against children. He spent a few years assigned to UVA Health, and serves currently as a captain in charge of the department’s support services: accreditations, records, information technology and much more.
Easton has been a huge UVA sports fan for even longer – especially basketball – and in recent years has also been a student in the University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
In a few days, he’ll add one more role to his time at the University: UVA graduate.
Easton will walk the Lawn with his SCPS classmates on May 21, when he earns his degree from the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, which is designed for working adults who want to finish their undergraduate degree part-time.
“I did this for myself, because it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Easton said in a recent interview. “Career considerations were part of it, but I also wanted to go to UVA and be able to call myself a graduate of the University of Virginia.”
For Easton, the path to a degree wasn’t straightforward. He was born in Montana, but raised in the Charlottesville area, and he decided to attend Piedmont Virginia Community College after graduating from high school.
At the time, academics weren’t his top priority, and he found himself disinterested in school and more focused on starting out in his career. His first job in law enforcement was as a corrections officer at a local jail, and he joined the UVA Police in the summer of 2001.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Easton said of his decision to build a career at UVA. “It’s a great place to be, and I love the University community.”
During the following years, he worked in every corner of UVA, including a four-year stint assigned to UVA Health, but found that he couldn’t quite shake the idea of completing his undergraduate degree.
“I always had this dream in the back of my head of going to UVA,” he said. “I thought it would be great to be a UVA student and to graduate, but I just never thought that I was smart enough or that I was worthy.”
Eventually he learned of the BIS program, which is designed for part-time, non-traditional students who are often balancing work and other adult responsibilities, and decided to give it a shot.
“My wife would tell me that I’m crazy for not doing it,” he said. “She’d say, ‘You need to go if that’s what you want to do; you need to work toward it.’ That resonated with me and helped push me along.”
He learned of SCPS after participating in the National Criminal Justice Command College, a certificate program for law enforcement administered through SCPS. After a positive experience there, he reached out to SCPS staff about finishing his undergraduate degree, and they helped him identify which courses he needed to take to be able to apply to the program. In 2017, he applied and was accepted.
“It was just one of the greatest things ever when I got that acceptance letter,” he said. “I felt like a 17- or 18-year-old kid getting accepted to college, and I was 45 years old.”
Easton pushed himself hard in the program, taking two classes per term, and managed to keep his grades high. He’ll graduate with a GPA around 3.7 and the respect of his professors, who recognized him for his hard work and positive attitude.
He said he’s also benefited from being in a classroom environment with people who have had different life experiences and perspectives.
“I’ve met some great people,” he said. “In just about every class, there’s a point at which you have to talk about yourself a bit, and I usually started out by saying that I’m a police officer here at UVA.”
Easton is proud of his department and how it represents the University, but said it’s also been a trying time for his profession and that he’s appreciated the chance to gain perspective through his academic work and interactions with classmates.
“I, like so many others, have been appalled and angered by the acts of injustice by police that have been highlighted over the past year,” he said. “I have always been proud to tell people what my profession is and especially where I am employed. I wanted to do something, but was not sure what to do or where to start.”
That desire found an outlet in his academic work. Easton’s capstone presentation, the final project of his undergraduate program, focuses on the treatment of Black college students by campus police.
“That focus was in general and not on any one department or jurisdiction,” Easton said. “One of the main duties of police officers is to save lives, and they should be the ones everyone comes to for help. Nobody should have fear of the police. In my research, I have learned how the incidents headlined in the news are only a sliver of how Black citizens and Black students are treated every day, and not just by police. It breaks my heart that I have not opened my eyes sooner than this, and I am hopeful for a brighter future where we can come together. There is a lot of work to be done, though.”
As for his upcoming graduation, Easton plans to walk the Lawn with his classmates and is looking forward to celebrating with his family, including his children, ages 14 and 10.
“They have seen me go through this,” he said. “They have seen the countless hours and evenings in classes, studying and doing the homework. And I’m excited for them to see the result of what hard work and dedication and goal-setting yields.”