In August, after two years of study, the two graduated from Sam Houston State University (SHSU) in Huntsville with master’s degrees in criminal justice management. They were the first TDCJ employees to earn their graduate degrees through a scholarship program that allowed them to work full-time during the week and attend classes tuition-free every other weekend.
“You definitely earn that degree,” Toney said. “There is a tremendous amount of reading and writing required. You have no family or social life during the program because when you get home from work you eat supper and then you pick up a book. You’re either reading or typing a paper. In one class, we covered a new text book every two weeks.”
“Our families had to be understanding because there were times when I wouldn’t see my wife for three or four days,” Bales said. “I would come in, eat supper, and start studying. And I’d still be studying when she went to sleep. But today, my wife wouldn’t trade a minute of it. She’s so proud of what Bruce and I accomplished.”
Bales, 50, had never really considered working toward a master’s degree. In fact, he didn’t earn his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and psychology from SHSU until early 2004, a full 30 years after he graduated from high school.
“One of my goals was to go back and finish my bachelor’s,” said the 20-year TDCJ veteran. “I never really thought much more about going beyond that. But when I got back into school at a later age, and I finished my bachelor’s, it was like I just had this new thirst for learning.”
For Toney, 39, who also has a bachelor’s degree in business management, a master’s degree was always part of the picture. After working five years as a police officer in Abilene, he joined TDCJ in August 1994 as an OIG investigator at the Robertson Unit. He was later transferred to a criminal task force in Fort Worth and actually enrolled in a master’s program at the University of North Texas before being transferred back to Abilene soon thereafter. He was transferred to the OIG office in Huntsville in June 2004 and joined Bales in the master’s program at SHSU two months later.
Bales describes his and Toney’s graduation day as “sweet.”
“I used to think that there was a mystic about people who earned master’s degrees and doctorates,” Bales said. “What I learned is that it just takes dedication and commitment. It takes hard work, but anyone can do it.”
Six other TDCJ employees and one with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles have been awarded tuition-free scholarships since 2004. The first graduates say their two years of study left them with open minds, awash in new ideas, and feeling refreshed.
“It made us think again,” Bales said. “I learned things in these last two years that I just couldn’t have learned anywhere else. What this gave me was the thirst for knowledge, the thirst to grow, and the thirst to learn more. I hope I never lose that because that’s something this program instilled in me.”
“I would encourage those seeking a management career in TDCJ to pursue the program,” Toney said. “I think it would probably be the best investment that they could make.”