Senior Seminar Connecting Students with Communities in Recovery
By Mike Emery
Throughout the fall semester, criminal justice students in Dr. Judith Harris’ Senior Seminar have received hands on experience working with community members at rehabilitation and recovery centers, as well as those serving time at the Harris County Jail.
On Dec. 9, they celebrated their life-changing semester and shared their experiences with community partners, friends and family members. This event, which featured end of semester presentations by the students, took place in UHD’s Commerce Street Building and featured an unannounced special guest, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, a proud UHD alumnus, applauded the students for their hard work and drive during the semester. He was particularly impressed with the seminar’s focus of working with citizens who need a second chance in society.
“We hope that through the course of your experiences, you learned about the challenges we (law enforcement officers) face … the intersection between criminal justice, mental illness, addiction and redemption,” he said. “It’s important that we provide critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities to address these issues.”
In addition to their coursework and time spent with community partners, students completed 46 hours of recovery coach training. This training is the first step for these students becoming state-certified recovery coaches (requiring 500 hours of training) and continuing to support those populations who face a long road back following addiction or incarceration.
This semester, Harris, associate professor of criminal justice, guided 18 students as they partnered with organizations such as Unlimited Visions Aftercare, Center for Recovery & Wellness Resources, Santa Maria Hostel and the Harris County Jail. At the latter institution, students worked alongside another UHD alum, Heidi Laser. Laser serves as a case manager for the jail and prepared for this role during her experience as a Senior Seminar participant.
Student Alexis Bonola worked primarily with Harris County Jail program’s Brothers in Arms, which supports veterans who are serving time. He assisted in screening inmates to determine their eligibility for the program. In addition to screening responsibilities, Bonola and other students assisted with distributing books to jail inmates.
“This experience is helping us connect with others who are already working in criminal justice,” he said. “It also brings us into the reality of the industry. Having never worked in a jail environment, I did not know what to expect. It’s nothing like what you see in movies or on television. It’s been a completely new experience and allowed me to learn much about our jail.”
Bonola will certainly apply the knowledge gained during the Senior Seminar to his career goal of serving the Houston Police Department. His classmate Jaqueline Mata also appreciated the hands on experience of working in the jail and with individuals in recovery.
Mata, an aspiring probation officer, worked at the jail and in Santa Maria Hostel. At the latter organization, she worked with staff members in supporting women with substance abuse problems. She said that learning from both Santa Maria staff, as well as the residents in recovery, provided excellent career preparation.
Both Bonola and Mata will graduate this weekend and are grateful for the Senior Seminar and its impact on their professional development.
“These experiences helped me step out of my comfort zone,” she said. “We as students are blessed to have this kind of opportunity to have a service learning course that places us directly in the communities that we want to help.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.