By Purnell T. Cropper
Three years ago Ashley Gast ’12 arrived on campus with a plan: study biology and then pursue a master’s degree and career in forensic science. But she had a change of heart after taking Dr. John Noakes’ First-Year Seminar Contested Convictions: Exploring Claims of Actual Innocence, in which students examined false confessions, police misconduct, the reliability of witness identification and the uses of DNA evidence.
The course led her away from lab work toward a focus on the U.S. criminal justice system, opening up new career possibilities. “I really, really enjoyed it,” she says. “[Criminal justice] became my passion.”
After taking Contested Convictions and becoming very interested in wrongful convictions, Gast completed an independent study and internship with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. “Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Throughout my independent study and internship, I sent requests, using the Right to Know Act, to all the police stations in Montgomery and York counties, regarding their departments’ eyewitness procedures. In the end, I determined that the majority of police departments in these two counties did not have procedures for lineups or interviews set in stone. This reiterated the fact that eyewitness identification is a problem when it comes to wrongful convictions, which needs to be fixed,” she says.
More recently, Gast spent the summer and fall investigating white collar crime, attending hearings, learning the ins-and-outs of the government and on one occasion swapping stories with a special agent at the firing range. That’s because before classes let out in May, she landed an internship with the U.S. General Services Administration, Office of the Inspector General in Philadelphia—a six-month experience she believes will help her land a job, possibly with the federal government.
“I didn’t think I was going to get an interview, let alone get the internship,” Gast says. However, she stood out from a competitive pool of applicants—criminal justice majors from programs throughout the Philadelphia area—with encouragement from Noakes and Arcadia’s Office of Career Development. Moreover, her performance on the job led to the extension of the internship, originally scheduled to end in August, through December. A leader on campus (Gast is President of the Forensic Science Club), she has proved to be a quick study and efficient worker as well.
“The GSA IG’s office investigates white collar crime, such as fraud and waste within the government,” says Gast. “One of the cases that I’m helping out on has to do with a WEX [Wright Express] credit card, which are given to GSA employees, and even Army and Navy personnel. The cards are supposed to be used for gas for an assigned car—not food, drinks, cigarettes or anything like that. The defendant used a WEX card to go back-and-forth to his hometown in a personal car, buying food and cigarettes along the way. While helping with this case, I’ve had the opportunity to look at surveillance videos from the gas stations where the credit card was used, which was an awesome experience.”
When she’s not doing casework, Gast tours other agencies, such as the U.S.Marshals Service, U.S. Probation and Pre-Trial, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, while shadowing agents to get a sense of career opportunities available in the federal government.
Noticing an opportunity to leverage her new connections, Gast invited Special Agents Ninh Jang and Eric Bishop to campus to discuss their work with the Forensic Science Club, which meets monthly to talk about issues related to forensic science and criminal justice. “[Students] were provided with a lot of information about what the federal agents do, as well as what the GSA is. Special Agent Jang provided us with a PowerPoint presentation that went over a case that I assisted him with which is currently in the stages of prosecution.”
Reflecting on her preparation for the internship application process, Gast says, “Getting help with your résumé is a must.” Before turning in her materials, she met with Mike Hertel, Director of Career Development, and staff for help.
“I think a lot of students underestimate the importance of that document, or the importance of quality in that document,” says Hertel. “Additionally, there are proven strategies to writing one effectively to engage your reader, and a lot of students don’t see it that way. They see it as a summary of experiences as opposed to a marketing tool. And so we really try to emphasize with students that they need to not only write a résumé but also have a strategy behind it.
“It’s so important to have that self-reflection piece going into an interview because you really have to understand how your experiences contribute to what you have to market. But if we don’t have a student reflect on that beforehand, it’s very difficult to pull examples to demonstrate the quality that they can bring to an organization.”
Gast says Hertel advised her to replace references of high school accomplishments with recent criminal justice experiences and recast some of the language. “The way I expanded information [in my resume] got better, and because of the way I set it up, I was able to use some of the things I wrote to lead me into talking about different subjects [during the interview], when before I didn’t have them on there, or I had more high school information than college.”
Photo by Pedro Leal ’13