December 10, 2003

Former police officers trade badges for law degrees

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- They spent years in jobs designed to help get criminal cases into a courtroom.

Now, William J. Vandersand and Samuel Robert Barker hope future courtroom appearances are before judges and juries in Southern Illinois and southeast Missouri.

Barker and Vandersand left police work to pursue their dreams of becoming attorneys and are among 11 students who will earn their degrees on Saturday, Dec. 13, from Southern Illinois University Carbondale's law school. They will participate in the law school graduation ceremony in May.

Barker, 35, of East Prairie, Mo., was a police officer for 10 years with the Mississippi County, Mo., sheriff's department and the Cape Girardeau, Mo., police department. Vandersand, 37, had four-and-one-half years experience with the Cahokia Police Department before leaving to run the family farm and work in construction in White Hall in Greene County.

Vandersand, who has a bachelor's degree in biology from SIU Edwardsville, realized he wasn't going to be able to continue doing physically demanding jobs. He also knew he wanted a challenge.

"The criminal area of law is especially interesting because you are constantly meeting characters and strange situations," he said. "Practically everything you do is unique."

Barker planned to go to law school after earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Missouri Southern University. But his children were on the way, and economics dictated that at least for a while, he needed a steady income.

A few years ago, Barker and his wife, Sandy, discussed the situation.

"We decided that if we were finally in a more stable financial situation and if I was going to go, I needed to go now," he said.

The men recently joked that they are among the oldest students in the law school. But Barker said age should not deter anyone from pursuing his or her goal.

One aspect common to both police work and law school is the need for persistence, said Vandersand, who lives in Makanda.

"If you give up in police work, you can get seriously hurt," he said. "And when you get into law school, if you give up you are going to get behind, and the next thing you know you are going to be in trouble academically."

Vandersand found himself "fully immersed" in his studies.

"I didn't think about anything else," he said. "I didn't feel as if I had any other choice but to just completely dedicate myself."

Barker said his family, which includes children Zach, 10, and Savanna, 9, is very supportive of his efforts in school.

"We work together. This has kind of been a group project," he said, adding that his wife is obtaining her master's degree in education this semester from Southeast Missouri State University.

Barker also credits Ian D.W. Sutherland, an assistant prosecutor in Cape Girardeau County, Mo., with helping to motivate him to go to law school. Tragically, Sutherland died in a skydiving accident in April.

"I wish he had made it long enough to see me graduate," Barker said.

There is stress with law school, but Barker and Vandersand would kid each other that the stressful situations they face now do not include being shot at.

"You are just not worried whether or not you are going to come home alive. That's not a predominant factor," Barker said.

"You constantly have school on your mind," Vandersand said. "There is always some kind of work to catch up on to prepare for the next class or the next test. It's very time consuming work."

Enhancing the diversity of the student body is very important to Dean Peter C. Alexander, said Michael P. Ruiz, the director of admissions, media and community affairs at the law school. Of the 11 students graduating Saturday, four are students of color and seven are women, he said.

"Older, nontraditional students like Mr. Barker and Mr. Vandersand, who are going back to school for a second career, are also part of the mix that we are trying to achieve in the classroom," Ruiz said. "Their experiences, which will be different than the average 23-year-old, will help shape classroom discussions and ensure that the 'marketplace of ideas' is truly open."

Creating a more diverse campus is among the goals of Southern at 150, the blueprint for the development of SIUC by the time it reaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Vandersand and Barker agree that anyone with the desire can achieve a law degree. The next step for both men is passing the bar exams.

Vandersand's goal is to be a prosecutor in Southern Illinois.

"Anybody who is sitting on the fence because they think they cannot do it because of their age Ð jump in. It's not a problem to get back into the study mode," he said.

Barker wants to pursue criminal law in southeast Missouri. He has nothing but praise for the faculty at SIUC's law school.

"I've been extremely impressed with the school and the professors," he said. "They produce a great effort to see that everyone succeeds. If you have an honest desire to work, they will help you and do whatever they can."

(CAPTION: Changing careers -- Former police officers Samuel Robert Baker of East Prairie, Mo., (left) and William J. Vandersand of White Hall, traded their badges for law degrees. The two men are standing outside the Hiram H. Lesar School of Law at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Baker and Vandersand graduate Saturday from SIUC.)