As students in Eric Grommon’s Corrections course wait for class to begin, a group of guests walks into the room. They’re here to pull back the curtain on corrections for students.
“It’s rare for students to gain direct access to correctional experts,” Grommon says.
One by one, people at the front of the room introduce themselves. Depending on the day, they may be from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Indiana Department of Correction, Marion County Probation Office, Marion County Community Corrections, or another agency.
Grommon says these critical classroom exchanges blend academics with practitioner knowledge, allowing students to see two sides of the corrections equation.
Samantha Nunnery, a criminal justice major, says they also let students connect with professionals in the field on more personal level.
“These practitioners are here to show us what their jobs are really like,” she says. “They help us balance any pre-conceived ideas we may have about this profession with the reality they see every day.”
As the presenters give insight into their field, students raise their hands. When the questions turns to policy, they want to know why things aren’t done differently.
“Those can be tricky conversations because we’re questioning how practitioners do their jobs,” Grommon says. “But these professionals are nimble and experienced enough to explain why policies and procedures are in place, and why the system operates like it does.”
The explanations often support lessons already learned in Grommon’s class. He doesn’t tell the speakers what to say but encourages them to tell their own stories.
“I want the presenters to be as blunt as possible,” he adds. “Working in corrections is not an easy job. I want students to hear the challenges as well as the opportunities for change.”
To do that, he relies on people like Alexis Dean and Rick Rosales. Dean just earned her MPA from O’Neill and is the DOC’s executive director of programs and re-entry readiness. Rosales serves as the DOC’s director of community and mentor engagement.
“Having practitioners speak to students is mutually beneficial,” Rosales says. “The bridge Dr. Grommon creates between the university and these agencies is essential because we’re all working together to improve the criminal justice system.”
Yet giving students a dose of reality is the primary focus for the speakers.
“Corrections is a complex and challenging field,” Dean says. “It’s hard to grasp if you don’t hear from someone who has experience working in it.”
For Dean, that experience includes being a female executive in a male-dominated field.
“When I first started in corrections 12 years ago there were not as many females serving in leadership roles as we have today,” she recalls. “Being able to see someone like you in leadership is important and I’m proud of Indiana for making that a priority.”
“Ms. Dean does an excellent job talking about the barriers females in the corrections field face,” Grommon says. “You can see female students light up because they’re hearing from someone who has managed these challenges and seeks to mentor the next generation of correctional professionals.”
Both Dean and Rosales say making those connections is worth the time they take to speak with students about their futures.
“I think it really enriches a student’s university experience,” Rosales says. “Quality universities don’t just have students read a book and discuss it. Dr. Grommon sees the broader picture of learning the material and tying it to people working in the field. That makes O’Neill degrees much more valuable.”
Dean adds that degree is becoming more important in corrections. Both she and Rosales’ career paths were nontraditional and relied on educational experience—neither began as a custody officer.
“Students are surprised to learn they don’t have to be an officer first,” Dean says. “We’re more interested in hiring the best-qualified candidate rather than making someone follow a certain path.”
O’Neill alumna Lauren Kenney’s career didn’t follow that path, either. Kenney earned her bachelor’s degree in public safety management, her master’s in criminal justice and public safety, and a certificate in homeland security and emergency management through O’Neill’s Accelerated Master’s Program. She also served as Grommon’s research assistant.
This semester, she’ll speak to his students via Skype from Wyoming, where she works for the state’s department of corrections, developing programming for inmates and overseeing caseworker training.
Kenney says it’s important for students to see the many opportunities available within the corrections field.
“There are so many different types of jobs and niches,” she says. “The more students are exposed to people in different positions, the more they can expand their career horizons.”
That message clicks for many students, including Alexandria Kemp, a criminal justice major.
“Hearing them talk about where they started and where they are now shows you that you can start in places you never even knew existed,” she says.
Once the discussion is over, some students linger to connect with the speakers. There’s usually a line of students collecting business cards and discussing potential career opportunities, including internships. Nunnery was one of those students.
“After I heard from Alexis Dean, I was blown away,” she recalls. “The impact she was having on people’s lives was exactly what I wanted to do. After class, I told her I wanted to do an internship and she helped me find what we thought would be the best fit.”
Dean believes these conversations allow her to not only help students but also to stay connected to the next round of her employees.
“I like seeing what the future of corrections looks like,” she says. “It’s good to hear why students are interested in this work. We’re going to need them.”