Growing up in Illinois, the daughter of a single mother, Ashley Tatum spent much of her childhood with her great-grandmother and developed an interest in crime scene investigation from detective shows they watched together.
Beginning in the fourth grade, Ashley says she thought she wanted to be a judge. But that changed as she became more interested in the puzzle of solving crimes.
“I like a good challenge, and I like mystery,” she explains. “Not only that, I want to be able to help my community with unsolved murders.”
After high school, Ashley earned an associate degree in the criminal justice field but knew she needed more education to secure a fulfilling career. With the local colleges unable to accommodate her schedule, she relocated to Huntsville, Alabama, and worked as an X-ray technician for the government. The flexibility of the UAGC online classroom allowed her to earn a degree while also working a second job and raising her two boys, 14-year-old Drayden and 7-year-old Adrian.
“I get the kids up at 7 a.m., work from 8 a.m. to noon, then pick the kids up from school, and work a 10-hour shift at my X-ray job,” Ashley says. “When I get off at 2:45 a.m., I do homework and often stay up until it’s time to get my boys up.”
The University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) student is on track to finish her Bachelor of Arts in Social and Criminal Justice in 2024 and says she believes the sacrifices she’s making now will pay off in the future, especially since she started putting her classroom lessons to work in the real world through her police department internships.
Taking Control of Her Future
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ashley noticed a decrease in the number of people willing to volunteer for internships in her community. She wisely took advantage of the situation.
“I took it upon myself to go to the police and volunteer for [these internships],” she says. “They were rotating people from different areas to help fill in the gaps, and they’ve been shocked and surprised that I’m volunteering.”
Her volunteer duties have included everything from riding along with police officers to visiting crime scenes. Her work as an X-ray technician involves using a microscope to inspect computer boards for damage or missing parts. Though it’s not related to crime scene investigation, she says knowing her way around a microscope and training her eye to look for the unusual or uncommon will be useful in her career.
“I get the kids up at 7 a.m., work from 8 a.m. to noon, then pick the kids up from school, and work a 10-hour shift at my X-ray job. When I get off at 2:45 a.m., I do homework and often stay up until it’s time to get my boys up.”
Ashley distinctly recalls one of her recent intern assignments with the Huntsville Police Department. Its impact will have a lifelong impression.
“The things you see at a crime scene, on a day-to-day basis, are things you might never be able to get over or process,” Ashley explains.
At the same time, her UAGC classes have challenged her in areas of psychology, among others, and have given her insight into the world of criminal investigation beyond what she grew up watching with her great-grandmother.
After graduation, Ashley says she plans to submit her first resume to the Huntsville Police Department. Eventually, after a few years of working in her community, she intends to branch out and start her own investigation unit.
“I want to give back by taking on cases that haven’t been solved,” she explains.
Breaking New Ground in a Male-dominated Field
Ashley is very aware she’s breaking ground as a Black woman, and not just because she’s the first in her family to finish high school and earn a college degree.
According to the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Policing Dispatch, women make up 13% of America’s police force, with the most significant numbers found in larger police departments.
With a population of nearly 222,000, Huntsville is the largest city in Alabama, but Ashley says she feels women of color are underrepresented in her community, at least in positions of authority. She’s determined to show she can be a leader and role model, and bristles at the thought of falling back on what she feels are outdated roles for women.
“Where I’m from in Illinois, people are like, ‘Are you in school?’ and they automatically assume that I’m in school for nursing,” she says.
Ashley applies a similar logic with her two boys. Her mother didn’t graduate high school and didn’t earn a GED until Ashley was in the third grade. She earned the credential, not just to give her family a better future, but because she didn’t want to tell Ashley to earn an education if she didn’t have one.
“My mom’s rule was, ‘Go to work or go to school,’” Ashley recalls. “I tell my kids that I’d never force them to do something that I didn’t do. How are you going tell someone to do something you didn’t do? I have to put my money where my mouth is.”
Ashley has held onto the dream of working in law enforcement and the criminal justice system since she was young, but there’s another dream she feels is within reach after she completes her degree.
“I still say that, when I get this degree and obtain the knowledge that I need in my career and get comfortable, I’m going to open a daycare as well as my own investigation practice.”
While running a daycare and investigating crimes are very different career fields, Ashley insists both fall under the umbrella of supporting the community and, notably, young people. Kids in the neighborhoods where she lives and works need someone to look after them, she says, so they don’t “fall victim to the street.”
She won’t stop until she’s achieved both goals.
“Those who know me will say that anything I start, I make sure I finish,” she says. “I like things a certain way and hold myself a certain way, so I don’t start something and not finish it.”
That tenacious nature is what drives her to overcome any challenge that comes her way, while also doing it with the right attitude.
“We need more positivity these days; not every female wants to do nursing or accounting,” Ashley says. “I love being asked why I want to become a crime scene investigator. Let me restate that. I love telling people that I will be a crime scene investigator sooner rather than later!”
Certain degree programs may not be available in all states.
Successful completion of an undergraduate or graduate degree in criminal justice degree by itself does not lead to licensure or certification in any state.