It was Susan Hickam’s second semester as a student at Missouri Southern when she knew what direction she wanted her career to take.

“I actually had two choices … it was either going to be theater or criminal justice,” Hickam says. “My father is a retired FBI agent. I’m sure that had some influence on my decision-making, but I was also very interested in theater.

“I remember walking into a criminal justice class during my second semester and feeling that’s where I belonged. The people, the instructors – it all clicked.”

Hickam, who graduated from MSSU in ’91, served for more than two decades with the U.S. Probation & Pretrial Services Office, and most recently as the assistant director of the Crisis Intervention Center in Fort Smith, Ark. She recently returned to Joplin to serve as the executive director of Lafayette House.

The organization – which offers assistance to individuals and families who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and substance use disorders – is a perfect fit for Hickam and the values and skills she has developed throughout her career.

Soon after graduating from Missouri Southern, Hickam accepted a position as a counselor with the Labette Correctional Conservation Camp in Oswego, Kan., where she had done an internship.

“That’s where I really understood that I wanted to work with inmates,” she says. “They hired me on after my internship, which was wonderful.”

For a brief period of time, she worked with her brother – an Arkansas attorney – before learning about a position open with the federal probation office.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in probation work, but I spoke with them and the position sounded more interesting,” she says. “I applied and got the position and never regretted it. It was exactly where I needed to be.”

As a supervision officer, she worked with individuals who were on probation or supervised release. She also had experience writing pre-trial reports – using United States sentencing guidelines to make sentencing recommendations to the court – and helped set up the office’s pre-trial division.

She worked for the probation office for nearly 21 years before leaving to spend more time with her son.

“When the time came to get back into the workforce, the assistant director position had come open with the Crisis Intervention Center in Fort Smith,” she says.

“During my time as a probation officer, I watched as we went from having very little interaction with or knowledge of the victim aspect of our criminal just system to an explosion of understanding. The whole system – state and federal – all made changes toward addressing victims’ rights.”

That understanding and passion for helping people is also what appealed to her when she learned of the open position with Joplin’s Lafayette House.

“Joplin? Home. Subject matter? Exactly where I wanted to be. It all just fell into place,” she says.

She credits the Lafayette House’s former director – Alison Malinowski Sunday, the recipient of MSSU’s 2018 Annie Baxter Award – for her work to build a network of support for women in the community.

“This place manages itself,” says Hickam. “What Alison put together is beautiful. The team has a very good understanding of victim advocacy, substance use disorders and how an organization like this runs. They get it. My first two months here are going to be fairly quiet … just watching how they do things. I come from a different set of state laws, so there will be some adjusting to them. And having substance use treatment on-site is something different for me.

“I’m very big on education and prevention. I want to make sure we’re having discussions with younger people in high school and college … trying to talk to them about not just ‘What is domestic violence or sexual assault?’ but about relationships. ‘What should you expect for yourself, and how should you expect yourself to treat others?’”

As she continues to settle into her new position, Hickam says she’s happy to be back in Joplin and in a role where she can use what she’s learned over the years to make a difference.

“It’s not an easy job, but it’s a thankful job; to know you’re helping your community, and to know you’re helping individuals.”