When Lauren Kenney walked onto IUPUI’s campus, she wanted to be an occupational therapist.
“That’s so funny to think about now,” she laughs.
Kenney met with IUPUI’s School of Science before the semester began at an orientation event. She quickly realized her planned path wasn’t the one she should be on.
She walked from table to table at orientation, trying to come up with a new plan and talking to new schools. That’s when she found James Eckerty, an advisor for the O’Neill School.
“His energy was electric and he was so passionate about the school,” she recalls.
She and Eckerty talked through her interests and goals. She thought she wanted to pursue a management degree but Eckerty opened the door to criminal justice.
“James suggested I take an intro to criminal justice course, just to see if I liked it,” she says. “I took one class and was hooked.”
Kenney says she switched her major to public safety management and never looked back.
“The more classes I took, the more confident I was that I had made the right decision,” she says.
In 2014, she interned with the Indiana State Fair after O’Neill alumna and adjunct faculty member Jennifer Esterline spoke in one of her classes. The next year, she was working with FEMA in Chicago, helping to maintain its emergency operations center. The following summer, she took on another internship, this time in the emergency preparedness division at Exelon Nuclear.
But Kenney also wanted to build her research background. She applied to become a graduate research assistant for O’Neill associate professor Eric Grommon.
“I had always been interested in corrections and the research I did with Dr. Grommon focused on that,” she says.
One of their projects assessed the impact of the Paws and Think program in the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center. The program paired young people in the center with shelter dogs, giving them the chance to train the dogs in basic commands.
It was Kenney’s introduction to the corrections side of criminal justice—and it sparked a newfound interest for her.
After earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Kenney says a job offer from Exelon fell through. She once again had to come up with a new plan. She knew she wanted to stay in public service and decided to join AmeriCorps. She moved 1,100 miles away to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she worked with the American Red Cross, setting up emergency shelters, installing free smoke detectors, and focusing on emergency preparedness.
After her year-long experience ended, Kenney felt at home in Wyoming. Rather than move back to Indiana, she started searching for jobs and found one that peaked her interest: a prison division training program manager for the Wyoming Department of Corrections.
Kenney knew it might be a long shot. After all, she didn’t have any traditional on-the-job experience in corrections.
“I marketed myself with the experience I had in grad school of translating research into practice,” she says. “I had never closed that door for future career options.”
The hiring team ended up reaching out to Grommon for his take on Kenney and her potential.
“They had concerns about Lauren’s lack of experience, but recognized she had a unique quality about her,” Grommon recalls. “We had this great conversation about how I absolutely agreed with their assessment. I told them that while Lauren didn’t have the experience, she would excel in the position if given the opportunity.”
And she has. Kenney accepted the position and says much of her success is thanks to the experiences and education she received through O’Neill.
“I really credit the research with Dr. Grommon and the graduate program for giving me the advantage to get this position,” she says. “I never really knew if this type of career would be an option for me because I didn’t have that experience in corrections. I got lucky.”
More than two years into her new career, Kenney oversees training for caseworkers at Wyoming’s five prisons, she works on programming for inmates, and oversees the field training program for case management staff.
And she has an important message to share with students. She joined Grommon’s Corrections course via Skype to talk to the class about her path into corrections.
“While I am working in corrections, I don’t have to go to a prison every day,” she says. “I’m working in an office and spending time in the field. There’s a lot of variety in what I do. Students need to know that there is a diverse selection of careers under the corrections umbrella.”
She says O’Neill helped her understand those options and build the foundation she would need to excel in any position.
“O’Neill is a really special place,” she says. “I feel very blessed I was able to go to IUPUI and be part of O’Neill.”