Graduate’s work keeps crises from crippling Illinois
Those are the last two words his mother says to him as she follows him out the door after a visit. Sometimes she reminds him not to drive too fast.
But she has a little more than the average mother to worry about. After all, her son, Andrew Velasquez III ’93, M.S. ’94, is the top public safety official in Illinois. His job is to respond to disasters and terrorism threats, along with being responsible for nuclear safety in a state with 11 nuclear reactors.
Velasquez is director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security advisor to the governor’s office, which means he climbs into the helicopter with the governor when anything bad happens.
“Any catastrophic event that affects this state, I can assure you that both the governor and myself will be there,” he said.
He sleeps with his Blackberry within arm’s reach.
“You have to constantly be connected. That’s just the nature of this business. In order to be truly successful in this career, you have to be passionate about what you do. Part of the nature of it is sacrifice.”
The criminal justice sciences alum was appointed in March of 2007 to head the Springfield state agency. He is the first Hispanic in that role. Formerly head of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, he was called Chicago’s “go-to guy” in the event of a disaster. If the mayor was out of town during a calamity, Velasquez would have had to make the call on evacuating the city.
When Northern Illinois experienced flash flooding last fall, Velasquez was there. And he was there following the Northern Illinois University shooting tragedy in February of 2008. When a 5.8 earthquake shook residents of Mount Caramel awake last spring, he got a call and immediately activated the state’s emergency operations center. The center coordinates disaster response, providing help to those struggling to recover some sense of normalcy following a flood, tornado, ice storm, or other disaster. The center can be activated for weeks, even months. Being in a position to offer aid is the best part of his job, Velasquez said.
“It’s all consuming. In some ways it’s a crushing workload, but what keeps me motivated is that I’m in a position where I’m empowered to help people in times of crisis. I can go into a community and say, ‘How can I help you? What can I do to help you recover?,’ and that’s very fulfilling.”
His sense of public service grew early in life. At a time when teens were likely to be working behind fast food counters, he patrolled the corridors of a hospital as a security guard, and worked retail as a loss prevention specialist. After graduation he served six years in the U.S. Army.
The native Chicagoan then started searching for a college. A friend who graduated from Illinois State’s criminal justice sciences program highly recommended the University, and gave him a tour. After one visit, Velasquez made his decision.
At Illinois State he was elected to student government, serving as director of Community Rights and Responsibilities, as well as president of the American Criminal Justice Association. He believes the University well prepared him for his 10-year career with the Chicago Police Department, where he started out as a policy analyst.
“I can assure you that the well-rounded education I received as a student of the criminal justice program helped me as I rose through the ranks,” Velasquez said. Impressed with his criminal justice professors, he remains in touch with several of them today.
“I remember the majority of my professors because they’ve had such an impact on my life and career,” he said, naming off a half dozen. “They didn’t just lecture. It seemed they had a vested interest in seeing the students succeed. I was also impressed that many of the professors brought real-world experience into their teaching.
“These professors challenged my intellectual curiosity. They helped me think about things I normally wouldn’t. I think about Dr. Lois Guyon. She set the stage for me. It was her criminal justice 101 course that basically locked it up for me.”
His education taught Velasquez how to recognize and diagnose problems, as well as think creatively. Campus life and getting involved in student government helped him develop the leadership skills he uses today.
“Living in the residence halls, serving in student government, all of those experiences taught me how to deal with people and build coalitions, which helped me become a better leader and a better manager,” he said. “It’s the foundation that I continue to draw upon for the career challenges that I have, and that I expect to have in the future. You’ll always have challenges in any career, and my career certainly isn’t over.”
Velasquez is still connected to the University. He speaks to classes, serves on the Criminal Justice Sciences Advisory Board, joins in social events, and advises his fraternity—Sigma Lambda Beta.
“I always look to see how I can help other alums, because I know the quality of an ISU education,” said Velasquez, who has hired criminal justice alums. His own success is an inspiration to students. He shares the humility he felt when recruited to his current post, noting that being the first Hispanic leader added a layer of pride for him personally and his family.
“My parents are very proud. But my mom is such a worry wart,” he added, with a chuckle. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have told her she has to stop worrying. I say ‘Mom, this is the business I’m in. If anyone truly recognizes how important safety and security is, it’s me.’”