Social science courses pave way to career advancement for correctional officer
When opportunity knocks, Alejandro Fairley is going to be ready to open that door. The correctional officer is currently earning his bachelor’s degree in social science at Brandman University’s Lacey campus. He works at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton that houses nearly 1,300 male prison inmates held in medium, close and maximum level units.
“The social science degree is a great combination for me that includes psychology, sociology, and organizational leadership,” said Fairley. “I already use what I’m learning in class to apply on the job, such as using psychology in the skill-builder unit that includes helping developmentally delayed offenders.”
Learning about sociology helps Fairley talk to inmates who come from all walks of life, as well as different geographic regions, from immigrants to those from Eastern Washington. And the organizational leadership knowledge is useful in managing hundreds of offenders. “I have to lead and manage offenders along with my peers, each and every day,” he said.
Fairley comes to his job naturally, noting that being a correctional officer is something of a family industry. His mother and father are both correctional officers in California, as are his aunts and uncles. “It’s a job I grew up with,” he said.
But Fairley imagined something much different when he graduated from high school. He had a full-ride scholarship offer to play football for UCLA, which he explained “didn’t work out.” He played at the junior college level in San Diego, but school was expensive. That’s when he joined the Army, serving as a light-wheel mechanic and a combat engineer. His roles in Iraq? Fixing vehicles and clearing roadside bombs. (RUGGED is a “shout out” to his team). He also acted as a bodyguard, escorting VIP’s in active combat zones throughout the country. An injury meant leaving the Army in 2013. The Department of Corrections hired him before he separated from the military.
“Because of my experience in Iraq, the DOC gave me my first opportunity as a civilian,” he said. “Then I moved into the WCC.”
Fairley aims to keep learning, and take on more responsibility at work. He’s a training relief officer, where he works every position at the institution. One day, he may be working in the Intensive Management Unit guarding maximum security inmates. Another day, he may work with developmentally delayed offenders. He also works as a counselor-in-training. Through it all, he realizes the importance of his education.
“I was terrified to go back to school,” said Fairley. “It’s intimidating if you haven’t been in class for a long time, and I was scared. Now I’m good, and I realize I don’t have to know everything. I’m there to learn.”
Brandman University’s blend of online and in-person classes works well for Fairley, even though he admits, his days are long. It’s the end goal that keeps him motivated.
“My short-term goal is to finish my degree and navigate the channels of classification counseling, and eventually work into being a correctional unit supervisor,” said Fairley. “Long-term, I know I want to continue helping people and offering guidance. I know to move up, I have to get my degree because that’s what will open doors.”
This story first appeared in FTE, a magazine for employees of the state of Washington.
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