Naomi Hassell on her educational experiences in Forensics, Criminology, and Law
Naomi Hassell is a 20-something who has a lot to be proud of. She recently completed her tertiary studies and is working in the criminal justice system in The Netherlands, with a truly broad view of the system. After finishing her Bachelor’s degree in Forensic Laboratory Research, she wanted to delve deeper, to gain a broader understanding of the system and of the prevention of crime. The next big step was attaining a multidisciplinary degree – a Master’s in Forensics, Criminology, and Law.
Naomi now works as a forensic DNA analyst at Eurofins TMFI (The Maastricht Forensic Institute), where she samples and processes evidence for biological traces, generating DNA profiles for the Police Force, helping criminal investigations along. With drive, vision, and a good foundation and support system, she learned to work around obstacles and pave her own way.
Hear Naomi in her own words, as she reflects on her background, motivations and educational journey, and offers some sage advice for (aspiring) students, especially those studying abroad:
I was born to Sandra Adelle Hassell of Sabian descent, and John Roberts of Dominican descent. Besides my parents, I was graced with an amazing big sister named Michaela Hassell. Looking back at my younger days, I’d like to say I had a fantastic childhood. Being raised in the Belvedere district, I spent my days riding bicycles with the boys in my neighbourhood, playing with control cars, and buying popsicles from the neighbourhood “pop lady”.
While I was raised in a family of four, my mother and sister nurtured and moulded me into who I am today. From a young age, they taught me the importance of hard work, discipline, and perseverance, which have moulded me into the individual I am today. My mother ensured that my basic needs were met and instilled the proper morals and values in me from a young age. I remember her waking up at 4:00 each morning to fix breakfast and lunch, and at 5:30am sitting with me on the rocks to wait for the school bus.
My mother brought me up with love and ensured I knew how to spread that love to others. Nothing was more important for her than kindness and bringing happiness and joy into people’s lives. While I was not the most innocent child growing up (oh boy, my teachers at MPC would definitely agree), these morals and values always brought me back to the right place in life whenever I lost track.
While my mother took care of my nurturing, my sister took on the significant sister role, which included having a personal bodyguard, second mother, and personal teacher. My childhood consisted of many visits to the library and to the library bus with my sister. I also had to complete homework she made for me, such as tracing the alphabet, numbers, and my name. Now and then, it also included some arguments as to who was smarter – because you know teachers don’t like it when their students outsmart them.
I attended the Marie Genevieve De Weever School at four and then transitioned to Milton Peters College in 2012. My high school journey at Milton Peters College ended in 2018 when I graduated from the VWO department. Shortly afterward, I moved to the Netherlands to pursue my tertiary education. In the Netherlands, I studied Forensic Laboratory Research at the Avans University of Applied Sciences in Breda and specialized in forensic biology.
In college, the workload was hefty, resulting in me having very little free time. Nevertheless, to keep myself busy outside of school, I would find other things such as cooking, watching films, and going to the gym now and then. Additionally, given the various school holidays, I often travelled back home during vacation time to be with my family and loved ones in Sint Maarten.
Deciding to go further and widen the scope
As my Bachelor’s degree was very lab-oriented, the focus was mainly on laboratory analysis of evidence provided by the police. While I enjoyed the practical aspect of my degree, I yearned to develop my knowledge and skillset further within forensic science by gaining more insight into the interpretation of evidence, evaluation, and application for litigation purposes.
As I firmly believe that the best way to tackle a problem is by its root, I also wanted to contribute towards preventing crime, rather than just solving it after it had occurred. Hence, I applied for the Master in Forensics, Criminology, and Law program offered by the Maastricht Faculty of Law.
I was drawn to this program due to its unique combination of disciplines. Unlike other programs, it did not only focus on forensic science, but also looked at other influential disciplines involved in criminality, such as psychology, criminology and law, creating a tangible link between forensic research and its role within the criminal justice system. These factors were essential to me, as crime is very dynamic and therefore requires a more multidisciplinary approach, which this Master’s program provided me with.
Highlights and working through challenges
Given that I had a Bachelor of Science degree, I lacked the law background needed for the Master’s program. Luckily, rather than having to do a pre-master, the university offered a law entrance exam for persons without a law degree. As I did not know the law, I had to put in much effort to study case law and learn how to apply it to actual cases. This wasn’t easy, but with the right amount of practice, I passed the entrance exam and was admitted to the program.
My challenges, however, did not stop there as I still had other law classes, such as Evidence and Advanced Criminal Procedure. As these law classes were on a Master’s level, I often had to put in more work, to complete assignments, understand literature and prepare for exams, than other classmates who had a background in law.
A highlight of this program was that it was a year-long course. For me, this was ideal as I was already working in my field while studying; thus, a short study period was more beneficial for long-term opportunities at my work establishment. At the same time, the short duration of the course could also be seen as a challenge as the workload was higher, and it became challenging to balance classes, extracurricular activities, and a Master’s thesis within one year.
Nevertheless, when you want something badly enough, you adapt to situations and learn to work around the obstacles. This ultimately paid off, as I completed my Master’s within an allocated year without re-sits. Another highlight of the Master’s is that, given my Dutch proficiency, I became eligible for a unique project offered by my University and the Dutch Police. For this project, a group of 10 students was chosen to work in collaboration with the Dutch Police on a (confidential) project, and thankfully, I was also one of those 10 students. This allowed me to build more on my forensic knowledge and skillset and gain experience within my field.
Lastly, the University also offered exchange programs, allowing me to follow other university classes. Given my interest in youth crime, I took up a course in Juvenile Criminology at The KU Leuven University in Belgium. This allowed me to build my knowledge on the influential factors surrounding youth criminality and inspired and aided my Master Thesis, titled “A Study of School Violence in Sint Maarten”.
Choosing a direction
Like most persons interested in Forensic Science, my interest in the field was piqued by shows, such as CSI [Crime Scene Investigation -ed.], Criminal Minds, and Law and Order. However, it was not until my sister’s home was burglarized in 2015 that I decided to study forensic science.
Coming from a family that works hard for what they want, seeing the injustice of someone breaking into your personal space, stealing your belongings, and getting away with it was a feeling I never wanted to experience again, nor did I want others ever to have to feel. Hence, I decided to become someone who could change that – and forensic science fits the description perfectly, as forensic evidence can make direct links with possible perpetrators.
At the beginning of my journey, I envisioned a career similar to CSI. I envisioned becoming a forensic investigator, which involved investigating the crime and analysing the evidence. However, during my studies, this changed as it became clear that having such a dual role is rare in the real world. One often has to choose between forensic laboratory work and investigative work.
While I began in the laboratory, my master’s program has allowed me to transition to the investigative aspect of forensics. I see myself gravitating more toward the investigative aspect in the future. I am still grateful for my laboratory background as it enables me to understand forensic evidence better, which often plays a significant role in criminal cases.
In addition, my experience in the laboratory also equips me with the knowledge needed to provide realistic recommendations for the course of action of evidence pieces to obtain the best possible results.
Advice for studying abroad, taking chances and striking a balance
My advice would be to learn the basics of the Dutch language. While there are some cities where English is also commonly spoken, nothing is better than understanding the mother language of the place you live in. It makes communication easier and allows you to do more for yourself. It may also create unique opportunities for you; for example, the project I got accepted to during university was due to my proficiency in the Dutch language.
My second advice would be to never to give up. When you feel like all the doors are closed, build your own. In the Netherlands, there is a saying, “Nee heb je, ja kan je krijgen”, which can be interpreted as “If you don’t ask a question, the answer is always going to be no. But if you ask the question, there’s a possibility of it being yes.” This is something I’ve learned while living in the Netherlands.
I often felt that I needed to be satisfied with where I was and not ask for more, because I was part of the minority. I tended to never speak up and felt I needed to be happy with what was given, because it was already a blessing. However, I learned that when you want something and know you worked hard and deserve it, you don’t give in easily to the status quo. I got both of my internships through open letters to my internship establishments. At the time, internships were scarce, and everyone was saying no, so I started asking companies who weren’t offering internships, leading to two successful internship periods.
My second internship was at the job where I currently work. At the time, they were not offering internships but were instead looking for a full-time DNA analyst. I applied for the job to pitch my internship proposal and benefits to the institution. Namely, if they provided me with an internship position, not only would the project benefit their company, but they would also have a full-time worker immediately after my internship period. Through this, my passion and love for the field of forensics were adequately displayed to the interviewees, which resulted in my current job establishment creating an entire project for me. This taught me that you can go where you fit or make space where you belong, and I live by that rule every day.
My advice to students would be: Don’t get upset when doors close on you; this is just God’s way of showing you that you need to build your own. Finally, I want to remind students that it doesn’t have to be all work and no play when they go away to study. Having a mother who was not allowed to further her education due to lack of funds and being raised on a somewhat “pay-cheque to pay-cheque” basis fuelled a different type of hunger in me. I was obsessed with success and put a lot of pressure on myself to become the best to change my situation and that of my family forever.
While I haven’t reached precisely where I want to yet, I have accomplished most of my goals and I am thankful for that. Nevertheless, when I look back at how it was done, I would not recommend making your only life goal chasing success. My college and university journey consisted of a lot of sacrifices. While sacrifices like missing parties and going out drinking were worth the while, I also sacrificed my mental and physical health for a long time. I never dealt with feelings like homesickness, loneliness, or physical and psychological exhaustion from constantly pushing forward because I felt like if I stopped, then all the work would be for nothing.
However, with time, I learned that I needed to put myself first because if I didn’t care for myself and my wellbeing, all my success wouldn’t matter. I started dealing with my feelings rather than suppressing them, going to therapy, going to the gym, and investing more time in learning how to balance work and my social life – and, honestly, this is the best I have ever felt. Now, I’m traveling more, better at communicating my feelings, and, most importantly, doing more and more of what makes me happy.
So my additional notes to students would be: It’s okay to take a break when you’re not feeling okay. Yes, life may not stop for you, but you need to be able to choose yourself over anything else. A break is simply a pause in the journey, not a termination from your life plans. And please remember that when life gets a little heavy, you have an entire village to lean on!