Corrections student pushed through hardship to complete his program
Santiago Orozco’s first day of class in his Criminal Justice Corrections program did not go well. “I am not going to be able to do this,” he remembers thinking. “This is impossible.”
Then Santiago thought about his wife Johanna and their young children Neydelyn and Elias. He thought about the years he had spent working in his dad’s landscaping business, the ongoing financial struggles and how if he didn’t get more education, he would be locked into a life of limits.
“That first day, I was feeling the tension of not being with my family,” he says. He reminded himself why he was sitting in that classroom. “I told myself I didn’t want to be stuck. I can’t just be a worker for somebody. I want a career, and I can do better.” He rode out that wave of anxiety.
It didn’t take long for Santiago to settle in to a routine that, although physically and emotionally crushing, also gave him confidence that he could make it work. The Modesto campus’ evening program allowed him to continue to work full-time managing and working in the landscaping business, and study late nights and part of the weekend. His family rarely saw him during the week.
“I saw them about an hour each day,” says Santiago. “I wanted something better for them. I wanted a career for myself, but I wanted my kids to see that when they grow up, they can be a certain age and still go back to school, accomplish things, and succeed in life.”
Santiago was 25 years old but feeling the weight of working since he was a kid. “I was 12 years old when I started pushing a lawnmower on days off from school and summer vacation,” he remembers. Santiago was eight when his parents and four siblings came from Mexico looking for a better life. “Seeing my parents struggling every day and living day-to-day, I wanted to help so they wouldn’t have to pay someone.”
Never afraid of hard work, Santiago focused that determination to succeed on his Criminal Justice Corrections program. Fortunately, parts of the program came easy for him.
“I really liked the discipline and the way we had to act with each other,” says Santiago. “We had to be formal in our communication and treat each other with respect. Expectations were high to behave professionally and follow protocol and rules.”
It had always been Santiago’s nature to be respectful. “I like to treat others the way I like to be treated,” he says. “Me being the way I was made it pretty easy to do that in the program.”
He had long before curbed his tendency toward verbal aggression. “I grew up in a family that talked kind of rough, and you would have to defend yourself,” says Santiago. “My wife told me that was something she didn’t like, and she had a good point. That isn’t the right way to talk to people.”
Johanna gave him the nudge – or pinch – he needed. “Every time I would say a bad word, she would pinch me on my right hand,” he laughs. “In the beginning, it was kind of hard, but it only took me a couple of months…and a few bruises.”
Santiago excelled in his Criminal Justice Corrections program. He graduated in July 2017 with a 3.5 GPA and perfect attendance. He was the recipient of the Founders Award from the Board of Governors. As the first in his family to attend and graduate from college, Santiago’s family of around 24 members were there to watch him walk across the stage at the graduation ceremony. “Seeing that I had accomplished this was exciting for all of us,” he says.
“Santiago was dedicated to his education and helping his peers, as well as fulfilling work obligations for his family business,” says Donald Martin, Criminal Justice Program Director. “Santiago also became one of the Criminal Justice Program peer mentors, as well as a natural leader who would inspire and encourage his classmates to continue and not give up when they faced obstacles in their educational path.”
Soon after graduation, Santiago landed a sought-after position with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department as a Custodial Deputy for one of the county lock-up facilities. He works in the public safety center where he is responsible for inmate safety. Every hour, he makes rounds checking single and two-person cells, making sure all is as it should be in this medium security facility with a maximum capacity of 86 inmates.
“I make sure programs are running right; no drugs or tobacco, and always keep an eye on the possibility of fights,” says Santiago. Gang-related and political or racial fights can break out at any time. “It can go from an easy day to a really hard day in a second. If someone is feeling disrespected, it is triggered really fast.”
That’s the moment when Santiago’s nature is his best weapon. “A lot depends on how you react, on how you treat them,” he says. “That’s what they give you back. If I respect them, they respect me.”
Even as he walks the corridors among many potentially explosive personalities and split-second confrontations, Santiago has found a place to exercise his competence and confidence. He sees a future in an environment many might find uncomfortable.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in the Sheriff’s Department,” he says. “I can be a Field Training Officer; that’s a person who can teach new recruits. There are sergeants, lieutenants – all in the same environment, you just go higher and higher with more responsibility. But at this moment, I really love where I am and the position I’m in.”
A degree in Business Administration is another part of the future he sees for himself.
Santiago thinks back to his days as an uncertain student in the Criminal Justice program at SJVC. What does he wish someone had told him to save him the doubt he felt in those first weeks?
“I’d tell them it’s hard. You go through struggles, but if you stay with it you’re going to get the glory.”
Santiago would also tell them that it’s all in how you carry yourself: Whether it’s on the job or committing to the education that will get you where you want to go. You straighten your back, focus your energy and walk the walk.
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