Julie Christian is full of unlikely combinations. She can look you in the face with utmost humble sincerity and say, “I am so proud to wear a uniform.” Her favorite part of being a police officer is “witnessing the positive impact one can make in every event or call.” Julie is 49 years old. Oh, yeah, and don’t let me forget to mention—she’s a student at Brown.
Julie is able to study at Brown through the Resumed Undergraduate Education (RUE) program, which admits a small number of students who have been out of high school for six years or more and are looking to complete or begin a college education.
Clearly, Julie is a bit more than six years out of high school. In the time that elapsed between then and now, a lot’s happened that made her into who she is today: a police officer, police dispatcher, Eucharistic Minister, mother, and a Brown University first-year.
You might be shocked that someone so prim and put-together is a policewoman on the side. You might be shocked that this ex-stay-at-home-mom is a college student. You will be even more shocked to know that all of this—returning to school, becoming a policewoman—has only happened in the last three years of Julie’s life.
I met Julie in a Public Policy seminar, Juvenile Justice Institutions and Policy. Immediately, I knew she had at least a few years on the other 19 students shopping that first day of class. Soon after, I learned from the professor that Julie was a policewoman. And there was my story: a Brown University student who worked full-time in the industry that so many had protested against less than a year ago.
Yet Julie was different than most officers I had encountered or seen portrayed in pop culture—she was soft-spoken without being timid, confident in speech and stature without being imposing.
I emailed Julie a few weeks ago asking if I could interview her.
“I will tell you my story,” she said, “but it isn’t as it appears… it’s one filled with a tremendous amount of struggle and pain. It is a long one, and it is a sad one.”
Julie met her (now) ex-husband when she was just 21; he was 34. She discontinued her education at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts, to take jobs cleaning houses and tending bars. After dating her husband for more than a few years, they had a “big, beautiful Catholic wedding” in front of 400 guests. Soon after getting married, Julie delivered three children in three years—Irish triplets.
Julie stayed home to raise her kids, a strong believer in the presence of parents and the offerings of education.
“I was a committed and dedicated mother in all aspects of parenting. My husband was out of the house at five every morning and home after nine each evening. I cooked breakfast every morning,” she said. “And it was never any of that crappy stuff—it was always real food… never those microwave waffles or anything like that. I promoted academic excellence, exemplary behavior, kindness toward others, participation in the arts and sports, and religious education.”
She believed the most important moments were spent instilling positive values like empathy toward others and dedication to cause in her children. Julie speaks fondly of the small moments she was present for, like teaching her eldest son to ride a bike without training wheels. She volunteered at her children’s school and considered herself a “really good role model.”
One day, after 12 or 13 years of marriage, Julie was at the Williams Sonoma outlet with a friend. The checkout attendant wouldn’t take her credit card because it had her husband’s name on it and not hers.
“Just use your own card,” her friend offered.
Julie didn’t have one with her name on it. She never had before—everything had always been in her husband’s name. Julie had been living on an allowance, $300 per week—never thinking it was strange to be denied fiscal independence or questioning the encouraged stay-at-home mom role. That trip to the store was the first time she realized the cycle of abuse she was caught in. Her husband would constantly tell her: “You’re stupid, you’re dumb, you amount to nothing.”
Julie sought out a job at a homeless shelter to both make money and spend her time more valuably.
“I went in thinking I was going to change homelessness, and homelessness changed me,” Julie recalled. “The homeless of Brockton [MA] saved my life. They would repeatedly say, ‘Julie, we wait all week long to see you, this person is destroying you and as you try to save us you can’t even save yourself.’”
As the cycle of abuse–verbal and emotional–continued and worsened, Julie’s children developed Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). PAS occurs when a child insults and alienates a parent due to indoctrination by another parent.
In 2011, Julie returned home from spending hours in the hospital with her sick father and made a decision. It was a turning point in her life.
“I told myself that life is too short for me to do this anymore… that anything has got to be better than living like this. So I went to the Rockland Library and took out Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce and I started reading it,” she said.
Julie filed for divorce, but had no access to bank accounts or any money in savings. Her husband gave the children monetary rewards in exchange for compliance and engagement in Julie’s taunting.
One by one, her children left their home in Norwell to live with their father, despite court-ordered custody awarded to Julie. Julie seldom saw her children, but continued to deliver gifts for birthdays and holidays to their respective guidance counselors for every holiday or significant day imaginable: Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, birthday, you name it.
Meanwhile, Julie started to consider going back to school.
“My mother influenced me to enroll in Massasoit Community College. She said, ‘You need to get your education if you’re going to make enough money to support yourself and do this on your own.’ Why am I going to breed complacency in others if I’m not going to breed it in myself?”
Julie says that on the first day of registration at Massasoit while filling out her paperwork, “I checked the box in Law Enforcement and I had no idea why.”
After forming a friendship with an officer who worked at the community college, Julie was encouraged to apply for an interview with Deputy Chief Gerard Eramo of the Rockland Police Department precinct.
“There were seven men and me waiting for the interviews–I was the only woman. I was called last. The deputy opened up the door, and I remember looking at his gun and thinking, oh my God, he has a gun,” she said. Julie had never seen a firearm.
“I have no idea who I was [in the interview]. It was somebody that came out of my body,” she said.
After a second interview, she was notified she had received the job.
The following occurred simultaneously: Julie enrolled in the Plymouth Intermittent Police Academy, attended Massasoit Community College, and was “court ordered to live in the house with my abuser for 18 long, miserable months until they decided who could keep the house. I lived in the upstairs guest bedroom with my clothes on three rolling racks.”
After those 18 months, the judge ordered Julie’s husband’s removal from the home. But the damage to Julie’s relationship with her children had been done.
“I knew that I needed to be financially stable for my children, for me. The first few classes I would sit in the back and feel the tears, thinking about ‘You’re stupid, you’re dumb, you’ll never get through this.’ My professor, Dr. Aviva Rich Shea, approached me after class and asked what was going on—she could really see it, she said. She really took me under her wing. She became my mentor and strongest advocate. I began receiving awards and recognitions [at Massasoit], and began to tell my story in assigned essays and for audiences.”
“Then, I had to go buy a gun. I learned defensive tactics, constitutional law, motor vehicle law, how to drive a police cruiser, make an arrest, and many other skills associated with providing public safety. For the first time in my life, I needed police intervention in my own home and wanted to help others in situations where they, too, needed help.”
At this point, her schedule was, to say the least, rigorous. The Academy was five times a week, she was dispatching at the station three times a week, attending classes three times a week, and working as a direct care provider at Mainspring Homeless Shelter twice a week.
Julie scored a 99 on the Civil Service Exam. Her name was placed on the list as a full-time officer in her hometown of Norwell, Mass.
Having become a police officer, Julie worked on call in a short-term juvenile detention center after leaving the shelter.
“The system places children in shackles and cuffs for transport purposes in the state of Massachusetts. My job was to monitor behavior and to ensure the safety of the students and staff members… I felt as though there was so much that could be done to improve the system and that it served as a feeding ground for future prison populations.”
Julie is passionate about the injustice of the justice system’s taking away what most prisoners already don’t have—formal education.
“And I thought about how education was dramatically changing the trajectory of my life,” she said. “I‘ve always kept in the back of my mind that my decisions moving forward were based on providing a positive example to my three children despite they way they were treating me, and that perhaps someday they would look back and think, ‘Oh my God, what did we do to our mother and look what she did to her life.’”
A forward-thinking attitude keeps Julie moving, despite the hectic nature of her current life.
“I no longer focus on what has happened to me,” she said. “I have been given the opportunity for a second chance. I never lost hope or belief that I could influence my own life and positively impact the lives of others.”
After Julie graduated in May 2014 from a two-year program, Dr. Charles Wall, the president of Massasoit Community College, suggested she apply to Brown University. It didn’t seem like a feasible option to her. Mount Holyoke gave Julie a full-tuition scholarship under the condition that she live in a dorm with other students five days a week.
“I actually Googled, ‘what are the chances of a community college student getting into Brown,’” she said.
Julie came to campus for an informal interview with Eric Hunter, an undergraduate admissions officer, to see “if it was even worth applying.” She brought with her one of the three bound books she made to one day give to each of her children. Julie lent me one of the books to look through after we spoke—it contained all of her awards, her certifications, her acceptance letters, letters of recommendation, essays, and scholarships from both her worlds, academic and criminal justice.
After the meeting, Eric called and asked her to send her high school transcript. One morning months later, after returning home from her ritual 5:00 a.m. run, Julie found a letter from Brown University in her mailbox.
She opened it there, alone in the driveway, and cried.
Julie is a second-semester first-year student. She commutes 50 miles each way to Brown from her home in Massachusetts–300 miles (or 11 hours) per week.
She’s a public policy concentrator and enrolls in the same classes we all do. In fact, her life as a RUE student is more like ours than one might think. Her favorite library is the John Hay because of the solitude and the “beautiful” Ann S-K Brown Military Collection.
“My mother came for Parents’ Weekend and people were saying to us, ‘Do you have a kid that goes here?’ And my mother said, ‘This is my kid! She’s 49 years old.’ My parents had never set foot on an Ivy League campus, nor had I.”
When asked about the biggest challenges policewomen face, Julie said it’s “the misconception that women are not as influential as men, not as proficient at a task, not as brave or capable. I wish more women would consider the career.”
Julie is a student who does many cool things: she is a cool mom, a cool policewoman, a cool civil volunteer, and, coolest of all, a role model.
“Each time I leave a class, I think to myself how fortunate I am to be here at Brown and sit beside such intelligent, motivated students,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed every class. You are all so very fortunate to have your whole lives ahead of you, to influence change in our world.”
It’s safe to say that we’re just as fortunate to have Julie here, too.
Image via Julie Christian.