Private investigator Kelani Dungca loves puzzles and logic games.
“I’ve always been drawn to detective work,” she told USC Online.
Now, through USC Bovard College’s online Master of Science in Criminal Justice program, Dungca is solving how to expand her skills and understanding of complex social and judicial issues.
Dungca credits the convenience of the program — which can be completed in either one or two years — as well as its supportive faculty for allowing her to earn the degree without having to take time off from her career caseload.
“My boss has also been very encouraging,” she said.
“It’s hard work,” Dungca added about the program — but more than worth the long hours.
Whether in the public sector or the private realm, detective work remains a male-dominated profession. But Dungca is helping change that through example, including by being an ambassador for the criminal justice program and sharing her experiences with prospective students. Through her ambassadorship, she has found a receptive audience.
“There’s definitely more interest in criminal justice because of current events and people wanting to get involved,” she explained. “They want to know more about the criminal justice system and how it can be changed.”
Finding Her Future
After earning her bachelor’s degree in communications from Loyola Marymount University, Dungca worked as a human resources recruiter. Even then, however, she was forging her current career path.
“A lot of recruiting is finding people,” she noted.
From the beginning, employers noticed her inquisitiveness and tenacity — essential skills for an investigator. She particularly excelled at finding candidates for the most difficult-to-fill positions.
After mastering the Boolean-search techniques vital for sifting through vast amounts of information to find ideal job candidates, Dungca wanted to pursue a more direct form of investigation.
So, she applied for a job as a private detective. Noticing an ad from a small investigation firm, she made her case about the overlap between recruiting and being a private eye.
“We connected right away,” Dungca said of her current employer, even though he considered hiring her a bit of a risk. “He typically only hired ex-law enforcement personnel but said he was looking for a different perspective on casework because of how it is evolving and changing. He also wanted someone who didn’t look like a police officer.”
She immediately found the work fulfilling, working with attorneys on civil and criminal cases, ensuring those in the criminal justice system get a proper defense and addressing gaps in the system — such as missing persons cases.
“Because it’s not a crime to go missing, those cases aren’t actively investigated by law enforcement,” she noted.
Her firm also assists a nonprofit that supports domestic violence victims, work that Dungca is passionate about.
“A domestic violence victim might talk to me about something they wouldn’t discuss with law enforcement,” she added.
After two years of work as an investigator, Dungca’s own desire for different perspectives — and for a deeper knowledge of the criminal justice system — inspired her to bolster her professional experience with an advanced degree. Meanwhile, family experience drew her to USC.
“I’ve always loved USC,” Dungca said. “My brother went here, and it’s a great school.”
While she thought the program would provide a career boost, she said, “I just didn’t know how interesting it would be. All of my classes have been relevant and fascinating, and each of them has been important in its own way.”
Diverse views and insights are among what Dungca finds especially useful about the USC Bovard program.
“There is nothing else like the discussions it facilitates,” she said. “Because you’ll be talking about incredibly relevant and difficult topics, such as racism, racial profiling and racial bias. And you’ll be in a classroom with a police captain who grew up in Los Angeles and potentially was subjected to bias. Meanwhile, the professor teaching the class was a public defender for 10 years. And then there’s someone else who might be an investigator for child protective services.”
Those are just a couple of examples of the experiences and knowledge reflected in the program — from faculty as well as fellow students. In addition to legal and law enforcement expertise, instructors come from fields including corrections, forensics, homeland security, mental health and social work.
“It’s fascinating and really shows how polymathic criminal justice is,” Dungca noted. “But then these are the multiple perspectives and issues that need to be brought together for the system to work.”
Given her background, it should come as no surprise that Dungca lists Criminal Investigations as a favorite course. But, she added, “There are some classes that I wish everyone could take.”
These include Youthful Offenders, which examines the factors that lead to crime — and how young people can be set on paths to more positive futures.
“While it was difficult in terms of the heart-wrenching stories that happen, you see the ways in which trauma can affect the criminal mind. You see the science behind it,” Dungca said of the course.
Dungca has learned through her coursework, however, that offenders are not the only people who endure trauma.
“You also see how trauma can affect those enforcing and applying the law,” she said. “It really teaches you to continue to question. It opens up new ideas, helps you see different perspectives and how the scales of justice really have to be balanced — and how difficult that can be.”
The program has also bolstered her understanding of the legal system: “It makes me a more talented investigator to understand the laws better because most of our cases are going to court, and all of the evidence has to be admissible. This is something I wish every American knew about — learning about your own rights, and the difficulties law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders and offenders face,” she said.
Pursuing the Truth
Even with hard-won professional experience, Dungca quickly applied her classroom lessons to her job.
“For example, I had to do surveillance for a case — which is difficult to do one on one,” she said.
While following her subject via car, she tried to deduce where he might be going in case his vehicle vanished in traffic. Then, Dungca recalled a concept from Criminology, her first course in the program.
“We were learning about how people sometimes have difficulty with impulse control, which is often something you see in the criminal mind.”
Remembering the background checks her company ran on the target, she thought, “You know what? I bet he’s going to a casino.”
Her hunch was correct, and she kept on his tail.
“I know that’s a small detail, but it’s an example of how the program has opened my mind to being more science- and evidence-based in what I do. It’s become second nature.”
Ultimately, what Dungca does is help people by pursuing the truth. She calls one of the most fulfilling aspects of her career “being able to work with clients to solve their problems.” She also appreciates the variety of tasks involved in her job.
“It’s something different every day,” Dungca said.
After earning her degree, Dungca plans to remain in the detective field.
“I enjoy being the lead investigator and being able to run different cases from start to finish,” she said.
But she also looks forward to the added opportunities provided by the degree’s training.
“When I started the MS, I had no idea what it would open up. There are a lot more opportunities for civilian investigators than ever before, and I see that trend continuing. So that’s something that the program has opened my mind to as well,” she concluded.
Learn more about the online Master of Science in Criminal Justice program.