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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

Graduate breaks the fast food job cycle with Criminal Justice career

February 9, 2017
Monica Ortega is now a graduate of the Criminal Justice program.
Criminal Justice: Corrections graduate Monica (left) with her fellow cadet and friend, Jessica Rae Padilla (right).

By the time Monica Ortega was 21 years old, she had worked for at least five fast-food chains. “I wasn’t happy working paycheck-to-paycheck and only living off that,” she says. “I was constantly working and not having something to look forward to.” Monica wanted – and deserved – more.

She considered community college but dreaded the scramble to get the classes she wanted. “It would take forever to get classes and I had a job, so just couldn’t do it,” she says.

A couple of friends had enrolled in medical programs at SJVC’s Hesperia campus and were working toward more fulfilling careers. It seemed like a good idea to Monica, so she and a friend met an Admissions Representative on campus for more information.

During her tour of the campus, Monica noticed several students in uniform who were involved in physical training. “I’ve always enjoyed sports, so the fact that they were exercising and being so physically active really appealed to me,” she says. “Let’s talk about that program, instead,” Monica said to her guide, who was happy to tell her about the Criminal Justice: Corrections program.

There was an immediate connection for Monica. “The focus is on your fitness instead of poking people with needles,” she laughs. “It was a better match for me.”

A career in law enforcement had always simmered just below the surface of Monica’s consciousness. Fernando, a long-term family friend, is a probation officer and someone whose work she has always admired. “I grew up watching CSI and Fernando talking to me about how he had to deal with certain cases, and about how much fun he had on the job,” she explains. Monica was ready to follow her gut…and her heart.

It didn’t take long for her instincts to prove correct. “When I got into the Academy is when it all sunk in, and I knew this is exactly what I wanted to do,” says Monica. “I learned how to take down a person trying to threaten your life and how to talk with an inmate or survive a physical threat with words. With communication skills, you can calm someone down and take control without physically overpowering them.”

That doesn’t mean that Monica wasn’t prepared to use physical restraint. “In law enforcement, you have to have physical stamina to be able to do your job right,” she says. “You might have to run and catch somebody and still have enough stamina to subdue them and complete the arrest.”

Sometimes the physical training was a little more than Monica was prepared to master.

One requirement of Criminal Justice cadets is to scale a 6-foot wall, unassisted. “For someone as short as me (5’ 1” tall), it was a little hard at first.” She found lots of support from teachers and her Criminal Justice classmates. “They push you until you get over that wall.” How did she finally do it? “With a big running start, I guess!”

“She is a little shorty, but a pistol,” says Eddy Leuridan, Criminal Justice: Corrections Program Director. “Monica led by example; uniform was impeccable and on point; always early, with perfect attendance. I created a lieutenant’s position for Monica and if there was a problem, she handled it immediately. No memos and all that. They (cadets) would make the change by the next day. She had kindness and discipline.”

All of Monica’s strength, determination and success didn’t mean that she didn’t struggle. Balancing work, school and a personal life could be overwhelming. “Sometimes I was, ‘OK, I’m so done with this, I don’t want to study, don’t want to finish my homework,’” she admits.

But, a fellow Criminal Justice: Corrections classmate pushed her in a way that she couldn’t find within herself. “Jessica Rae Padilla and I connected like we had known each other for years,” says Monica. “She became someone I always wanted in my life…a best friend and sister.”

Even though they were about the same age, Jessica had tremendous wisdom and a deep understanding of what was important in life. “She would make me see that if I don’t fix this small problem, it will become bigger,” says Monica. “She would always remind me how much I could accomplish in life.”

What neither of them knew at that time was that Jessica had cancer and would be gone just a few months later.

“She was on this earth to touch everybody, and change them somehow,” says Monica. “You can’t speak to someone who was close to her without knowing that she did something in their lives to change them, to help them realize something.”

Monica felt the power of Jessica’s inspiration. “She changed me. I value life a lot more, value my family more. I promised myself that I’d finish school and further my education because of her. She never got the chance to do it; she can’t. But, I can. And, I will.”

Monica graduated from the Criminal Justice program last November and is working as a Public Safety Assistant in the private sector. She has plans to get her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology so that she can reach an even higher position in law enforcement or corrections.

She feels all the support she will ever need around her, always.

Learn More About A Career In Criminal Justice: Corrections

Criminal Justice: Corrections can open doors to work in private, state, federal prisons or local jails as well as in private security in California. Learn how to join this exciting career and why you should pursue a correctional officer degree.

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