Jacquelyn “Jacki” Rizzo,’70, brings theatrical background and creative energy to the world of federal law enforcement
Jacki Rizzo says she has the unique but likely largely unknown distinction of being the only theater arts graduate at Rosary Hill College (now Daemen College) with a major in scenic design. “The major was discontinued shortly after I graduated, but I think it was truly the foundation of my nearly 30-year career in law enforcement,” Rizzo recalls. “In studying theater at the college, I learned to interpret the many ways people present and express themselves, which is an invaluable skill in the field of customs and immigration.”
Rizzo retired last year as a supervisory customs and border protection officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), wrapping up a career that took her across the country and around the world, from Austria to Thailand. Using skills she first honed in her theater studies at the college, Rizzo developed a training course for officers to help them interpret body language, dress, and other signals to spot persons who may be using a false identity. The training program is still used at the DHS today.
“My theater studies helped a lot, but it was the entire education I received at Daemen that significantly influenced the successes I have experienced,” Rizzo says. “There were quiet influences in every department, from art to philosophy to sociology, which taught me many different perspectives of the world around me.”
A change of scenery
A graduate of Williamsville High School, Rizzo began college as a music major, but when a friend switched to theater arts, she followed her. That is where she first met Sister Jeanne File, OSF, an art teacher and one of seven Sisters of St. Francis who founded Rosary Hill College, now Daemen College.
“Sister Jeanne didn’t just teach art, she showed you how to look at the big picture to come up with solutions – how to do something better or look at a situation differently,” Rizzo remembers. “She was so approachable and nurturing, and was ahead of her time in developing experiential learning.”
Rizzo envisioned herself working at the college in the theater department after graduation. However, her husband’s job with the then-named U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) took the couple to Detroit. There she attended Wayne State University and studied technical theater, earning a master’s of fine arts degree. She took time to raise the couple’s three daughters as a stay-at-home mom. As her husband’s career progressed, their family moved from Buffalo to Toronto to Detroit to Cleveland to Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to Dallas and back to Washington D.C., making it challenging to establish herself in any one theater community.
It was in Washington that Rizzo decided to pursue a career in government. She began her federal career in 1985 in personnel and security and then moved on to law enforcement in 1989 as an immigration officer. She graduated from the Immigration Officer Academy (IOA) in Georgia and began working in the field in 1990. Her work took her around the country, to nearly every port and border crossing in the United States. She has trained personnel in the airline industry on how to verify passenger identities and has worked to inform government agencies and congressional staff on immigration issues.
Rizzo has also trained internationally, including stops in Vienna, Austria and Bangkok, Thailand. Her work with homeland security has been recognized with a DHS Secretary’s Award and two Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner’s Awards. She also took a special interest in mentoring young women, serving as a volunteer with t he Girl Scouts of the USA and the Americ an Association of University Women. She received a Thanks Badge and Thanks Badge II from the Girls Scouts in honor of her 45 years as a volunteer member and adult educator.
“The disciplines I learned in theater studies in college were readily applied to my work in law enforcement and border protection,” Rizzo explains. “It helped me to understand how people can misrepresent who they are and assume a different identity – just like the best actor who becomes the character he or she is portraying.”
The next stage
Rizzo is retired and living in Arlington, Va., spending time traveling and visiting her daughters and grandchildren. She returns to Buffalo often to visit family and has stayed connected with Daemen, having served on the Alumni Association’s National Board of Governors as chapter coordinator and chair of the Nominating Committee. She currently serves as second vice president for the chapter.
Over the years, Rizzo says she has supported Daemen’s annual giving campaign as a way to give back to the college and to help students build an academic foundation for successful careers.
“The basic principles I was taught in college – from critical thinking to time management to research and analysis – have stuck with me my entire career,” Rizzo concludes. “I want to help today’s students to have the same opportunity at Daemen and to learn in a caring and nurturing environment.”