All it took was one ride with a Lincoln police officer and Arcelia Gomez was hooked. Now after a series of mentorships and internships, the senior social work major found a job in the Lincoln Police Department supporting crime victims.

Gomez always dreamed of working in the criminal justice field, but she wanted to focus on people and not punishment. One of her academy teachers suggested pursuing a social work degree so that she’d have options, including criminal psychology and counseling.

After enrolling at Union as a music major, she did some career shadowing before encouraging professors also suggested a switch to social work. “We learned the code of ethics, how to communicate professionally, how to keep professional boundaries, to use our time well, and to ask questions,” she said. “Most importantly, we learned that everyone has a right to self-determination. It’s our job to empower clients to make their own decisions and learn their potential.”

During their junior or senior years at Union, students enrolled in the social work program complete a practicum—480 hours of unpaid internship. Gomez first interned at an emergency shelter for youth before transitioning to the Friendship Home, a shelter and advocacy center for victims of domestic violence. There, she honed her skills by sitting in on case management meetings and assisting caseworkers to help women and families restart their lives.

“I’d make sure they had food, and I’d be there for them if they needed to talk,” Gomez explained. “I also helped facilitate children’s groups, women’s meetings, parenting support groups and domestic violence support groups, and helped clients cope with what they’d been through.”

Who better to do law enforcement than a social worker?

During this time Gomez went on a ride with a Lincoln police officer—and was fascinated by watching the officer’s interactions with the public. “She had a good listening ear and was an amazing mediator,” Gomez said. “She’d calm people down and help them talk out their problems. It changed my perspective on law enforcement.” It also made Gomez see a possible new twist in her own career path. “More people with those skills are needed in law enforcement,” she said. “Who better to do it than a social worker? We’re trained in crisis intervention, human behavior and empowering clients.”

Her understanding of the criminal justice system grew when Gomez started attending courthouse trials under the mentorship of JoAnna Briggs, LPD Victim Witness manager. “I had a lot of questions,” Gomez said. “I didn’t know anything about the criminal justice system, but JoAnna taught me the basics and encouraged me to apply for an internship through the Lincoln Police Department.” When her stint at the Friendship Home ended last December, Gomez accepted an internship in the victim witness department under Briggs’ guidance.

Her new duties included reading police reports from the previous day and looking for victims of assault, burglaries, stalking, threats, rape, domestic violence and related crimes. Then Gomez and her coworkers would call victims to make sure they were all right. She also helped witnesses prepare for protection order hearings. “We helped them learn what judges look for in order to approve orders,” Gomez explained. “We also went to court with them for protection order hearings and trials, and we offered support by sitting with them until they went up to the witness stand.”

Briggs was impressed with Gomez’s abilities and work ethic in her internship, so she encouraged Gomez to apply for a part-time domestic violence victim advocate position at LPD. Her new position is connected to the federal Violence Against Women Act, so Gomez has to carefully record how many domestic violence, stalking and assault cases the department handles each month and in how many she personally assists. LPD then compiles those numbers and contributes to national statistics.

“My time in the victim’s witness unit showed me different areas where I can work alongside law enforcement to help people,” she said. “I can also see myself working in law enforcement in the future.” But she’s not in a rush to decide. “It’s something I can settle into, so I can give it some time. Law enforcement is intense, and the longer I work in my current job alongside law enforcement, the more I learn.”

Her upcoming graduation also gives her a chance to reflect on the education she’s received at Union. “Our classes really prepared us for every branch of social work,” Gomez said. “I’ve felt ready to jump into my different internships, and I can fall back on the skills I learned in my classes. It will be a big adjustment, but I’m ready to graduate. I’m blessed to have a tight-knit group of friends who support each other, and the faculty members at Union are all concerned about my success. I know I can talk to them if I’m having struggles or need help. They’re always there for me.”

Lauren Bongard Schwartz graduated from Union College in 2004. She works as a freelance writer from her home in Bismarck, North Dakota