Amanda Rivera comes from a family of law enforcement officials and always aspired to a career in criminal justice, but her path was not always clear as she had to overcome personal doubts and challenges including losing her hospitality job at the onset of the pandemic.
With the support of her family and the faculty of Polk State College’s Criminal Justice Program, Rivera has persevered. She achieved her Polk State Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree with honors in May 2020 and is now training in her new role as a juvenile probation officer.
“I could cry about it – it’s emotional that I was able to accomplish my goals,” Rivera said. “It’s because of the professors. They told me that I could do it when I was in doubt.”
Rivera was apprehensive about her English, her second language. She moved to Florida from Puerto Rico in 2008, when she was in the seventh grade.
“I could cry about it – it’s emotional that I was able to accomplish my goals. It’s because of the professors. They told me that I could do it when I was in doubt.”
Graduate of the Polk State Criminal Justice Program
“The experience was hard for me,” she shared. “It was difficult for me to communicate with others and because of that I was bullied.”
When she graduated from high school, “Polk State was my first choice – I never thought of any other college,” she said.
“Polk State is close to home, it’s not too big, and at the moment I was confused about what I wanted to do,” Rivera added.
With six locations throughout Polk County, online and hybrid course options, small class sizes, and tuition that is a fraction of the cost of that at universities, Polk State is an affordable, local, and flexible option for students.
Polk State’s Criminal Justice Program is no exception, and the professors are incredibly supportive of students, who benefit from faculty’s expert knowledge and professional experience in the field.
“They not only teach to the book, but also to real life,” Rivera said. “They share what they have gone through and can answer any question based on what they have experienced.”
Rivera credits Criminal Justice Program Director Sgt. Chris Shea and Professor of Criminal Justice Chasity Branham with providing her with the education and skills to achieve her career dream. She also thanks them for motivating her through her self-doubt and obstacles.
“I remember having her for courses like Criminal Law and Criminal Evidence and Procedure and being so encouraged by the light in her eyes and the true desire to ‘change the world’ right where she was planted,” Branham said. “She was not ‘just another student’ to me – none of my students are. I was privileged to learn about her amazing family, to learn about her life, and to get to know her beyond the subject matter content that I was teaching her. I got the opportunity to know her as a person and to encourage her heart and dreams along the way.”
“I remember having her for courses like Criminal Law and Criminal Evidence and Procedure and being so encouraged by the light in her eyes and the true desire to ‘change the world’ right where she was planted. She was not ‘just another student’ to me – none of my students are.”
Professor of Criminal Justice
In the long stretch of completing her degree, Rivera’s father became ill, she had a baby, and she lost her job as a hotel supervisor due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
“It was stressful, but through it all, Polk State was flexible and supportive,” she said. “I was able to take my classes online, which helped with my crazy schedule and when I had emergencies, and the professors were there for me to help in any way, whether it was with school or in my personal life.”
Branham’s impact on Rivera has been profound, but Rivera’s story also inspires Branham, who is a graduate of Polk State.
“All of the reasons Amanda chose Polk State are the same reasons I did as well. Choosing Polk State was the first choice I made in my academic and professional life, and the choice that provided the most solid foundation I could have for a career within our Criminal Justice system,” said Branham, who also like Rivera, was the first generation in her family to attend college. “Our students are blessed to have a college where we care about our students. Our Criminal Justice Department desires to walk alongside them as they pursue their goals. We, as faculty, are blessed to watch ‘Amandas’ shine within our classes — whether face to face, online, or hybrid — accomplishing their goals and stepping out in positions to change the world in positive ways.”
Rivera expressed gratitude for Sgt. Shea and Professor Branham’s continued support as she begins her career as a juvenile probation officer.
“They are always there to answer my questions,” she said. “They are always there to provide support.”
A typical day in training for Rivera includes observing other probation officers on calls, summarizing police reports, and helping with affidavits.
“I want to help people and I believe I will be able to have an impact as a juvenile probation officer,” Rivera said. “I don’t want kids to worry an officer will get them in trouble, I want them to know we are here to help them with making positive changes in their lives.”
She also hopes to inspire others with her story.
“Students should not give up. Your mind can be tricky and tell you that you can’t do something, but you actually can,” Rivera said. “With the support around you, like your family and professors, you can accomplish anything.”
Sgt. Shea added that the “beauty” of Polk State’s Criminal Justice Program is that it offers classes in all three areas of the criminal justice system – law enforcement, corrections, and the court system – for all who aspire to careers in the field.
“Graduates of our program will be the ones who will make a positive impact on the criminal justice system in the future,” she said. “I am thrilled Amanda has found a career as a juvenile probation officer. I know she will make a positive impact on our community.”