Corrections graduate will not let childhood abuse affect her future
Geri Tercero was in a mentally frozen state and knew she was going to have to do something very hard and painful to break free. She had endured childhood sexual and physical abuse off-and-on for eight years by a close family member. Her guard was way up and seemed a permanent fixture in front of her face.
“I had a very rocky feeling about male authority, so I really didn’t do well in (high) school,” she says. “My opinion was that all men were good for nothing.”
Geri’s mom was in and out of prison and her father had never really been in her life. “I was passed around a lot and never had a stable environment,” she says. “It was a very rough time for me because I was being abused.” Geri was in the fifth grade when she finally confided about the abuse to a teacher. She was removed that same day and taken to live with her papa and her older sister Raylina.
“I buried most of my issues within myself, and didn’t realize it until I got older,” says Geri. “In high school, I started smoking weed and stuff. I was in a very ‘I-don’t-know-what-to-do’ kind of place, but knew I wanted to have a leadership type of role.”
Leadership might be another word for control, that thing she suffered without for so many years.
When Geri was a senior, SJVC’s high school representative came to Geri’s school to tell students about certificate and degree programs offered on the Ontario campus. The Corrections program got her attention. “I always felt that I wanted to have a foot in law enforcement,” she says.
The world of criminal justice and corrections is a male-dominated one of unquestioned authority, rigorous discipline and the ever-present potential for danger and violence. It is teamwork built on trust and dependability. With her distrust of men, was Geri about to lean into a career punch?
“I went to tour SJVC right after I graduated,” says Geri. “I really liked it and I was really determined to go to this school.” One potential roadblock was that she had no driver’s license. And she had no car. But she was willing to take a bus every morning and every evening for about an hour each way to make it happen. She was still able to hold onto her part-time job because her boss worked with her new schedule.
“My first day of class I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to think or do; I didn’t know what these people were about,” she says. It only took her about a week to relax into this new and demanding world.
“I’m a person that likes a challenge and coming from where I come from, jumping into this very strict world was very challenging for me,” says Geri. “They (instructors) had such high expectations of me, I kind of took that and ran with it.”
It wasn’t an easy run. “Sometimes I let the worst come over me and talk back or say something I wasn’t supposed to say,” she remembers. “They would remind me what was expected and what I was there for and why I started this in the first place.”
It turns out it was those difficult times that gave Geri the greatest accomplishments. “It felt good that I could have that control over myself, that I could react in the right way in a professional environment.”
She had six male instructors. Her push against male authority found the perfect arena in which she could fight for her own sense of power without having to diminish anyone else’s. “I trusted all of them,” says Geri. “They showed me that all men weren’t scum, and they completely changed my outlook.”
She respects them all and calls them by name. “Mr. Bocanegra, Mr. Chesnut, Mr. Paris, Mr. Embry, Mr. Perkins and Mr. Walker; they completely changed my opinion,” she says. “They didn’t sugar-coat anything. I had to open my mind, and it took me a while to realize that.”
The sheer physicality of the Criminal Justice Corrections program was daunting…and exhilarating. “I really enjoy the take-down movements,” says Geri. “In fact, I even enjoyed getting pepper-sprayed, even though it hurt.”
Every part of the education and training Geri received in her Corrections program played into the role she would take next, when she joined the Army for a three-year stint just after graduation. “All the yelling and push-ups we had to do really prepared me for the military,” she says. “It improved my mentality and how I’m supposed to be professional and how I would have to adapt to any situation; how to deal with people and try to see things with an open mind; not go in and judge the situation or the outcome.”
“Miss Tercero came to this college and the Criminal Justice program as what could only be described as a little rough around the edges,” says Michael Bocanegra, Corrections instructor. “She came to realize that the structure and necessity to be self-disciplined brought out the best in her, and while searching for answers she discovered herself. She went from being stand-offish to being a member of our Command Staff, which acts as mentors to new students. Seeing her transformation was truly awe-inspiring.”
By the time Geri completed her program earlier this year, she had put together a lot more than her hard-won Associate degree provided. “I look at myself and I see a strong-willed person who is not about giving up and who is all about her ethics and morals.”
Geri plans to get her Bachelor’s degree while she is in the military, then direct all that she has learned these last few years toward a career as a correctional officer in a locked facility. “Working as a correctional officer in a prison is dangerous because there are people there who have nothing to lose,” she says. “But it’s a more controlled environment, and you have people to back you up.”
She will use her history of sexual assault and self-healing to help others create their own roads out. “You have to find your own way whether it’s talking to somebody, or writing, art, or music. You have to find it deep inside yourself, that strong will to just not give up.”
Geri found her way. “For me, it was listening to other people’s stories about abuse, but it could be about anything. Just be an open ear. Know that, yeah, that happened to me too. You’re not alone.”
She learned to have greater empathy for others – even for her abuser. “I had to forgive him to move forward from it. I plan on not letting my past affect my future.”
From empathy, comes strength. With strength, you can go anywhere.
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