L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs



Class of 2024: Deja Cooke returned to college to pursue a dream of a career in criminal justice

After graduation, Deja Cooke will serve as a drug court probation officer with the Virginia Department of Corrections. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)
After graduation, Deja Cooke will serve as a drug court probation officer with the Virginia Department of Corrections. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

After graduating high school in 2015, Deja Cooke enrolled at Old Dominion University, but it wasn’t a good fit. She returned home to Richmond and started classes at Reynolds Community College, but she put her academic dreams on hold while working two jobs at a grocery store and hotel to make ends meet.

In 2019, Cooke secured a job at VCU Health as a patient access representative in Outpatient Services. Her team lead at work, as well as her mother, encouraged her to consider returning to school.

“I’ll never forget [how they] wanted me to go back and finish what I started so I could go into the career field of my choice,” Cooke said.

While still working full time at VCU Health, Cooke became a student at Brightpoint Community College studying criminal justice, having long been interested in a criminal justice career that would enable her to help others. After graduating with an associate degree with honors in 2022, she transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University and began pursuing degrees in criminal justice and homeland security at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

“I’ve always loved VCU as a campus, but when I came to preview day in March of 2022, I felt VCU was the college I wanted to spend my next two years,” Cooke said. “The Wilder School made me feel like I was home, and I enjoyed hearing about the different things they had in store for me as a student.”

As a student at VCU, Cooke has had two internships – first with Henrico County Community Corrections and currently with Chesterfield County’s Probation and Parole District 27. She has continued to volunteer with Community Corrections, staffing the front desk on Fridays and providing additional support. 

Cooke has also sought ways to serve at VCU. For example, she is a Wilder School ambassador, representing the school at events such as preview day, as well as participating in the school’s transfer student forum.

Throughout her time at VCU, Cooke has continued working at VCU Health. After working in Outpatient Services for two years and one year at the Short Pump Pavilion, she began working the night shift as a unit secretary for VCU Health’s Emergency Department.

“I loved working in the ED. It taught me a lot, especially for my job now as a program support assistant in the OR” at night, she said. “I am the one who works side by side with charge nurses, especially when it comes to emergency surgeries and other important needs to the OR.”

Following graduation, Cooke will begin a position with the Virginia Department of Corrections in Henrico’s Probation and Parole District 32, serving as a drug court probation officer.

Looking back on her time at VCU, Cooke said the best part has been learning from faculty members such as Brad Lehmann, Ph.D., an instructor in VCU’s criminal justice program who also previously taught Cooke at Brightpoint, and connecting with a great academic advisor, Katie Crump.

“The best thing about being at VCU is being a Wilder School student, meeting new people [and] building relationships … [and] being at this school on this campus as a whole,” Cooke said. “I’ve had wonderful experiences.”

From their very first meeting two years ago, Crump was impressed with Cooke’s personal growth, resilience and ability to accomplish any goal she sets for herself.

“It wasn’t always easy, but she was able to balance working overnights at VCU Health, a full course load and any other challenge along the way thanks to her strong support system. I believe a central theme to Deja’s story is that she was willing to put herself out there to try new things, make connections with faculty/staff and take advantage of opportunities presented to her,” Crump said. “There aren’t enough words to describe how proud of Deja I am. She is a bright young woman, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for her. I have no doubts she will continue to represent the VCU Wilder School in the highest manner as an alumna.”