Janna Dahl ’14 never expected to earn a bachelor’s degree, let alone graduate summa cum laude from UCCS and pursue a career as a death investigator. Yet she did just that. She got there – as she’ll tell you over and over again – through the power of relationships.
“Relationships are the key to career success,” Janna said as she reflected on getting her foot in the door of the El Paso County Coroner’s Office, where she now works as a medicolegal death investigator.
“It was the professors at UCCS that made this place feel like family,” she continued. “My job at the Coroner’s Office came about because of one of my professors, who knew my potential supervisor and recommended me. They did everything in their power to ensure that I was going to be successful.”
Now, Janna pays those experiences forward. When she’s not working 48-hour shifts called to the scenes of unexpected deaths by homicide, suicide, overdose or accident – or natural deaths in the home – she lectures for the School of Public Affairs and the Gateway Program Seminar at UCCS.
“The opportunity to lecture while also working in the field is invaluable,” Janna said. “I hope it brings my lectures to life in the same way that my undergrad professors’ experiences did for me.”
We caught up with Janna to hear what it’s like to assist with forensic investigations and autopsies (for 48 hours straight), her most difficult career moment and where she plans to go in the future.
Q&A: Janna Dahl ’14
I am an American Board Certified Medical Legal Death Investigator for the El Paso County Coroner’s Office. I am also a lecturer for the School of Public Affairs and the Gateway Program Seminar at UCCS.
It’s all about networking. You’ll find I’m a broken record on this subject. I found the position for a death investigator for the Coroner’s Office and asked my old professor John San Agustin if he knew anyone there. I’d say he got my foot in the door for the interview. My resume, as well as the relationship with my professor, Dr. Kelly, got me the job, since he was Chief Medical Examiner at the time. (He was later elected Coroner.)
As for lecturing at UCCS, I had developed a strong relationship with Anna Kosloski, associate professor of criminal justice, while she was my professor for many of my courses. She gave me the confidence to pursue a totally new field, and it was her passion that convinced me to do it.
The best part of both my jobs is honestly the people I work with. Being able to do what you love with people you get along with and trust is truly amazing. As exhausting as our 48-hour shifts at the Coroner’s Office can be, we still look forward to work. Our job is very stressful. Knowing we can count on our partners is everything and having Dr. Kelly as a leader is key to that environment.
I’m also grateful for the unique 48-shift schedule as an investigator, and the opportunity to lecture while also working in the field is invaluable. I hope it brings my lectures to life in the same way that my undergrad professors’ experiences did for me.
When I am working for the Coroner's Office, our shifts start at midnight and I am on-call for the next 48 hours. The day before, I drive down to the office and pick up my work truck to take back to my house. That way if I get a call at 00:02, I’m prepared. And I go to bed early!
Some shifts are slow. It’s not just paperwork, although completing reports is a big part of it. We also assist with notification of next of kin – which can include tracking down those individuals. We help the doctors with anything they need, respond to calls from families requesting information on the status of a case, assist with body releases, perform intakes of bodies and do any follow up of the previous shift’s cases.
As for calls to scenes, they vary a lot. We handle everything from natural deaths at hospitals to unexpected and unattended deaths. We are responsible for determining whether or not an unattended or unexpected death warrants a forensic autopsy. These deaths can include homicides, suicides, overdoses, accidents, and natural deaths in the home. We are generally extremely busy. With a county population of over 700,000, and only two of us on-call at any given time, we don’t usually spend a lot of time in the office.
The return to the office after a scene involves input of photos and typing up the reports so the doctors can do the autopsy the next day. If there are no additional calls at the end of the day, we return home to try to catch dinner and perhaps some sleep before another call comes in during the night.
I am incredibly proud of my academic career. I didn't have the "typical" launch into college like most people I knew. I graduated from high school early but did not attend college right away.
After a few years, I was living in Santa Barbara CA working for a tiny hotel chain and all my coworkers were attending University of California, Santa Barbara. To be frank, I felt like I was missing out and decided to give community college a try. I started classes at the local community college and rediscovered my love of learning. When I applied to UCCS I had a perfect 4.0 GPA.
My love of learning transferred over and I can honestly say that my time at UCCS were some of the best years of my life. The faculty and staff at UCCS were a huge part of that. I loved how many of my professors were still employed in their respective fields or had retired after having a full career. They were able to provide real life examples with the material we were discussing. I ended up graduating from UCCS with honors and summa cum laude. I also received the School of Public Affairs’ Outstanding Undergraduate Student Award for 2014. I never thought I would even get my bachelor's degree, let alone perform as well as I did. It was certainly a moment I will never forget.
I would have to say a low point was during the first year of my master’s program at George Washington University, where I earned my Master of Science in Crime Scene Investigation. It had been a dream to get accepted there, and I thought I was going to build a life on the East Coast. It didn’t take long for me to realize I really missed the West and that East Coast life was not for me.
I was very unhappy for a while and felt like I had to rethink my entire career plan. I’d thought I wanted to work for the federal government in some capacity, and I knew that returning west was going to mean a different plan. But my mentors reminded me that this was all temporary, and I could leave when I finished.
I ended up interning with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and finished my master’s degree in a year and a half. Towards the end, I flew back to Colorado to see if it still felt like home – and it definitely did. While I was there, I met with the UCCS GPS assistant director and was hired as a lecturer. I continued my job search after moving back and landed the position with the Coroner’s office.
The curriculum offered at UCCS was what originally attracted me to the university. The breadth of the coursework left me well-prepared for my graduate work. But it was the professors at UCCS that made this place feel like family. They inspired my love of learning. They were attentive, supportive, and did everything in their power to ensure that I was going to be successful. They also stressed the importance of networking, which I am so grateful for. It was probably the most valuable lesson I took away from UCCS.
Relationships are the key to career success. I might not be lecturing at UCCS today if it weren’t for the relationship I developed with Professor Kosloski while an undergrad. And my job with the Coroner’s Office began through a connection from John San Agustin, who knew my immediate supervisor and recommended me. While I valued my graduate time at the George Washington University, UCCS will always be home to me.
Networking. Networking. Networking. I can’t say it enough. Begin this practice as an undergrad. Start with your professors and branch out into other professionals in your field. So many opportunities come along via word of mouth. Who you know will open doors for you in ways that your credentials and achievements alone cannot.
I am a homebody at heart and enjoy spending my days off with my husband. When we’re not hanging out at home, we enjoy hiking and outdoor activities – anything that gets us out in nature. That’s one of the things we love best about living in Colorado Springs.
I'm a pretty adventurous foodie, but three very basic things I cannot stand are French fries, frosting, and soda.
I hope to be continuing to do what I love. I hope to still be working for the El Paso Coroner's Office as well as lecturing at UCCS. The balance I get from the combination of both jobs is so rewarding. Also, my husband and I would love to start a family, so maybe that will be in our future as well.
What really worked for me was building a rapport with my professors. I was the type of student who always harassed my professors during their office hours to ensure I was understanding the material. By taking the extra time out of my schedule to meet with them, I got more one on one time to not only deepen my understanding of the curriculum, but also to develop my relationships with them – see “Networking” above!
Faculty appreciate the students who really take an interest and make that effort, and it will, in turn, increase your confidence as a student as you move through your time at UCCS.
Want to be like Janna? You can! Find out more information on the School of Public Affairs at UCCS.
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UCCS’ Success Stories series features recent alumni who are making an impact on their communities and the world around them. Having graduated in the last 15 years, they are busy making strides in the directions of their dreams. We can’t wait to see how their stories unfold.