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IU Northwest students gain career benefits by volunteering

Lecturer gives students taste of what criminal justice fields might resemble while instilling value of community service

IU Northwest file photo
Criminal Justice student Dylan Certa confers with Lecturer John Tsolakos, who teaches a course in Family Violence. Certa, who works at the IU Northwest Police Dept., is working towards a career in law enforcement.

For a few hours each week this summer, Dylan Certa spoke with victims of domestic violence when they came to the Lake County Courthouse requesting protection orders.

Often, the 20-year-old Indiana University Northwest sophomore from Merrillville would recommend a shelter, remind victims that abuse is never their fault, or simply lend a friendly ear.

“You’ve got to be a little on the sensitive side,” Certa said. “Basically, you’ve got to be like a police officer, a counselor and member of the court at the same time.”

The service-learning experience was part of the requirement of the Family Violence course he took this past summer with John Tsolakos, a lecturer in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA).

Tsolakos, a retired police officer, developed the criminal justice elective from his experiences in the field. In his career, he specialized in domestic violence cases and worked towards providing a more comprehensive support network for victims of abuse.

Though he’s been teaching the course at IU Northwest on and off since the 90s, Tsolakos decided an important element was missing, so he reached out to the contacts he’d acquired over the years and asked them if they’d be interested in some student volunteers.

The result, he says, has been beneficial all around -- for students, the agencies and their clients. 

“It’s given (students) the opportunity to see what it’s like,” Tsolakos said, “to get involved in these types of situations.”

Tsolakos points out that many students walk into his classroom with unrealistic notions of a criminal justice career, expecting the job to be as glamorous as a CSI-type television show.

“I have a lot of students saying, ‘I’d like to do this or that.’ I’m giving (them) the opportunity to do it,” he said. “Get involved and see what it’s like. Go into these shelters and see what these people are going through.”

In Certa’s case, his volunteering activities have really solidified his desire to become a police officer or law enforcement official.

“I gained a better understanding of what actually happens between the class and going out and working and applying what I learned,” Certa said.

Certa also works part-time at the IU Northwest Police Department and volunteers at the Griffith and Highland Police Departments as part of Explorers, a program for high school and college students interested in law enforcement careers.

Mignon Kennedy, director of Gabriel’s Horn, a homeless shelter for single women and women with children in Valparaiso, had six students doing much-needed maintenance at the shelter this past semester.

While confidentiality regulations prevented the student volunteers from getting directly involved with the clients’ situations, Kennedy said the women, children and student volunteers got to know each other on a casual, social basis.

“I think it gave them an idea, first of all, of how people in the shelter live. . . . We showed them what the environment is like. . . .  I think they got a little bit of an idea of what’s it’s like to live in a space where everything is shared,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said the experience gives students a perspective on things they might not have had previously. If anything, she said, they gained some recognition of the blessings of their own lives and perhaps some lessons in empathy.

“I think the general mainstream population doesn’t really have a true understanding of what it’s like to be homeless and really living in poverty,” she said. “I think that they had a little glimpse of that.”

In addition to Gabriel’s Horn and the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, Haven House, a battered women’s shelter in Hammond, and St. Jude House, a family violence shelter and prevention center in Crown Point also took in student volunteers this past summer. Tsolakos hopes in the future to increase the number of agencies involved with the Family Violence class.


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Emily Banas
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Erika Rose
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Related Links

IU Northwest School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA)