Peter Massey’s office is full of a lively blend of mementos from his careers as a police officer and a forensic science lecturer.
There is a shelf full of binders depicting the often intense topics covered in a crime scene investigation course, a target-practice poster, a police hat and a wall full of framed police badges, each with a connection back to a specific person he met at training programs around the country. On his desk is a touchstone of another kind: a thick stack of business cards from former students now working in the field. “I talk often to incoming students, and I tell them I have two favorite days as an educator. One is graduation day, and the other is every time I get one of these,” Massey said. “It completes the circle.
"To know you gave a little nudge that developed a student or helped him or gave her a contact that in some way helps them to become who they are going to become – that’s euphoric," he said. "There's no greater feeling than that."
Mario Gaboury, dean of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, said Massey is greatly admired by his students. “They benefit from his extensive experience, his excellent teaching skills and his personal concern for them,” he said.
“Professor Massey is always excited to hear what is going on in my career and to celebrate in my accomplishments,” said Donnelly Wiggins, a 2006 graduate who works as a victim/witness advocate for the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office. “I can always count on him to give me his honest advice with new professional goals.”
His lessons resonate in her work today. “He taught me never to give up, take my time, look at my strategy and go at it again,” she said.
Earlier this year, Massey was named one of the 15 best forensic science professors in the country by ForensicsColleges.com.
“From the moment he walks into the classroom, you instantly know that this man is willing and ready to do whatever he can to help you succeed in his classes and in your future goals,” added Matthew Kluko ’12. “But don't expect him to go easy. His classes are practice for the 'real world,' and ultimately, your success falls on your shoulders.”
Kluko asked Massey to write him a recommendation when he was applying to medical schools. When he got accepted to the Trinity School of Medicine in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, he wanted to tell Massey in person.
“The genuine reaction I got from Professor Massey was nothing short of the reaction I received when I told my parents the same news,” he said. “No sooner had I told him, he was on his feet, looking to share the news with anyone who would listen and even those who wouldn't!”
An Unlikely Career Path
If anyone told Massey back when he was a Hamden police officer that he would one day win a national award for excellence in college teaching, he said he’d have had quite a laugh.
In fact, a course he took at the police academy in instructor development almost put him off teaching forever. He had to give a one-minute, three-minute and ten-minute lesson. “I stumbled through the one-minute and three-minute lessons,” he said. He re-focused for the 10-minute lesson and nailed it.
At the time, teaching was the farthest thing from his mind. He was deeply engaged in police work, investigating crime scenes, assaults, robberies and suspicious deaths, receiving many commendations for his work over the course of his 20-year career. After his retirement, Massey became the training coordinator for the National Crime Scene Training and Technology Center at UNH’s Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science, but it was serendipity that led him to academia.
When an instructor for the crime scene investigation course was unavailable one semester, Massey jumped in. From the start, the students loved his approach.
His mix of humor and authenticity and the experience he brings with him from the field “make him the epitome of what an experiential educator should be,” said Jaclyn Kubala’14, a forensic science, pre-med and biotechnology triple major with a minor in chemistry.
“He presents us with real-life situations, challenging us to critically analyze situations and see how we would approach each situation,” Kubala said. “Most important, his central focus is the success of his students, and he truly wants each of us to succeed.”
Donnelly Wiggin concurred. “He brings his sense of humor into his classroom, which helps to lighten the mood when dealing with the difficult and sometimes daunting topics you are studying in his classroom,” she said. “His classes are always fun, yet he strives to challenge you.”
'I've Been Very Lucky'
Even his 8 a.m. Friday classes – an absolute dead zone when it comes to student preference – are full, and students rarely miss a class.
The passion for what he does is palpable, said Nandnalin Sirihorachai ’14, a forensic science and biology double major who is working on a faculty-mentored research project with Massey, studying a new fingerprint powder to determine how well it works on old prints.
“He asks you to think logically about what you are going to do,” Nandnalin said. She vividly recalled a story told by Massey about an investigator who failed to put on protective shoe coverings and stepped directly into a crime scene. “It’s something you will always remember and never do,” she said.
Massey said he is proud that he has become what he calls a “pracademic,” a faculty member whose approach melds the professional and academic. He is pursuing his Ph.D. in criminal justice at the University, and he said his academic pursuits have given him new insights into the rigors of research and inspired him to make his classroom ever more challenging.
He calls his teaching career one of his life’s great gifts. “I’ve been very lucky,” he said.
Donnelly Wiggin said the same. “I am grateful for the countless hours he’s spent mentoring me over the years,” she said. “I am also humbled that he has invested his valuable time to help me grow.”
This story, written by Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor Jackie Hennessey, appeared in UNH Today in February 2014.