FBI Victim Specialist becomes expert in sex trafficking prevention

November 22, 2016

As a victim specialist for the FBI in Baltimore, Capella University graduate Renee Murrell provides assistance to victims of federal crimes.

While the crime and the criminal are investigated, Murrell’s role is to look at the victim’s side, see how the crime has affected them, and then help them through the process.

Recognizing the need for research

Murrell’s work puts her in contact with many young victims of sex trafficking, and over the years she was surprised to find that there was little helpful research on the topic. “I realized the lack of research data hinders our prevention and remediation efforts,” she explains. “It took my breath away when I realized that we didn’t have a lot of research on the growing problem of sex trafficking.

“Everybody was saying, ‘We don’t know what the problem is, we don’t know all these things.’ I wanted to find out how I could conduct needed research in this field. How am I going to give my town some data to effectively enforce laws or make needed changes to the laws or secure funding? I believe change is ultimately driven by the research.”

Choosing Capella

Knowing first-hand that trafficking was a growing problem, she decided to take an active role towards a solution by searching for a PhD in Human Services program.

“Because of my job, I’m out at night and I get called 24 hours a day,” Murrell says. “I needed an online program that would understand a little bit about what the FBI does. Representatives from Capella came to our workplace and talked to us. A lot of schools did, but the difference for me was that Capella understood the mission and priorities of the FBI. I thought, ‘They understand it, they did the research; that’s going to be the school I go to.’”

More than just online

Between her demanding job and family life, Murrell was apprehensive about taking on the rigors of a PhD program, so she started by taking just one course. She quickly realized that Capella offered a lot more than just the online course itself.

“I loved the flexibility of being able to work in the middle of the night if I needed to,” she says. “But equally important, I could always call in for help when I needed it. The ability to talk to an advisor, the accessibility of my faculty mentor—all those things were what I needed. Knowing that someone would call me back or respond with an email was huge. It was just a good fit.”

When her job responsibilities caused her to have to back away from studies for a semester, her faculty mentor provided the feedback and support she needed to do what was necessary. “I talked it all over with her,” she says. “Even though I’ve never met her in person, it was personal. She gave me the time needed to talk about my issues and why this was important. When I made the decision to take a semester off, she told me what to do and how to do it. She said, ‘Come back, I’m going to check on you.’ When the next session came, we were back on track, and it was really wonderful. My mentor was there for me.”

Increased credibility

Her passion for helping the FBI solve the problem of trafficking has always been evident, but the PhD opened new doors for Murrell. “My colleagues see me differently,” she explains. “They always knew I had the passion for the work, but the PhD upgraded my credibility to where people really want to hear what I have to say. Now when I’m talking about this issue, people see me as an expert in this field. I’ve done the research, and I can present it with authority in a way that’s clear. What’s more, they understand the depth of the trafficking problem in a new way. Just in the short time that I’ve had the PhD, I’ve received many invitations to present on my study, and I’m hoping that will make people change their views about this particular crime and see how they can help.”

Future plans

The doctorate not only affected her current career, but her outlook towards the future, and the new possibilities the PhD provides. “I think my ultimate dream is to be able to increase awareness about this issue and the issue of violence against women,” Murrell says. “I want to be able to talk about it and to do more research. I get really excited about everything. I’ll be retiring soon, so I think that’s opening up the doors for me to do more. I’m looking forward to my future and what that holds.”

Advice for potential PhD students

Murrell has advice for others considering a PhD. “Be flexible,” she says. “I thought that if I just structured it out and had the plan, that I would not have to deal with obstacles. But when I got into the independent study, I had a lot of challenges. And it almost threw me because I was so rigid in my thinking. I had to learn that you can’t control everything as much as you want to, and that was life-changing because, in fact, I can’t control much. My program taught me to think differently and become a more flexible person. It was eye-opening.”

See graduation rates, median student debt, and other information at Capella Results.

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