Future-focused: Melani Monje Riberth gains hands-on experience through Summer Jailor Academy
by Rachel Zeeve
Undergraduate criminal justice student Melani Monje Riberth put her security, defense, administrative, investigative and forensic skills to the test at the 10th Basic Summer Jailor Academy.
It’s 7:45 in the morning, and Melani Monje Riberth and her peers have already neatly backed into their parking spaces, changed into their uniforms, and reported to the classroom. They’re ready to explore topics from firearm safety to chemical munitions. As a criminal justice undergraduate student with a concentration in forensics, Riberth put her skills to the test at the 10th Basic Summer Jailor Academy. This nine-week program creates a unique learning opportunity for junior and senior criminal justice students to earn academic credit, gain hands-on experience, and secure a certification as a correctional deputy by Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services.
From concept to career path
Driven by a desire to build trusting community partnerships, Riberth pursued the wide scope of the criminal justice field with representation in mind. “There is nothing more rewarding than knowing you may be affecting someone’s life or changing someone’s perspective about this field so that they can trust in you,” she said. “I grew up not seeing much diversity in criminal justice. This resulted in my own distrust of law enforcement. Now, being in this field myself, I want more than anything for those like me to see me a familiar face to build that comfortability.”
Unsure of where her studies could take her, she first discovered the Summer Jailor Academy through one of her classes during the spring semester of 2022. “It seemed like it was a good way to start out and put my foot in the door,” she said. “Up to that point, my career choices had not felt concrete for me. Everything was up in the air surrounding what I wanted to do.”
The Academy’s alternating schedule of lectures and applied knowledge helped solidify Riberth’s passion for bringing equity to the field. From defensive tactics to security maintenance and other on-the-job training, the program fostered a wide variety of skills.
“I knew that the Academy would be physically and mentally demanding, but with the leadership that guided us, I felt that my academy-mates and I were cared for incredibly well. We were encouraged to push ourselves,” said Riberth.
At the program’s conclusion, students are able to work part-time for the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office. While it wasn’t Riberth’s original plan to take the position, the Academy broadened her perspective. “At first, I thought this experience would be more lecture-oriented with very basic training,” she admitted. “I also did not plan on staying to work for the Henrico Sheriff’s Office, but the more I learned about it — and the more things we did to connect with one another — the more I wanted to take the job offer as well.”
Now a sheriff’s deputy, Riberth is able to put her extensive education to work. As a sworn officer, her duties include working security, completing paperwork, performing regular security checks and ensuring that inmates have their needs met. She hopes to pursue a career as a forensic investigator and approaches every experience as an opportunity to enhance her diverse skillset.
As she embarks on her career path, Riberth defines her experience with the Academy as transformative. “Our instructors were a huge influence on my perspective in policing and corrections, giving me hope and a deeper respect for law enforcement that I wish everyone could have the opportunity to see as well,” she reflected.
Crime analysis in the classroom
Classes at the Wilder School helped Riberth lay the groundwork for her successful summer at the Academy. “Everything finally clicked, and my coursework made more sense during Academy practicals,” she said.
“I grew up not seeing much diversity in criminal justice. This resulted in my own distrust of law enforcement. Now, being in this field myself, I want more than anything for those like me to see me a familiar face to build that comfortability.” – Melani Monje Riberth
The criminalistics and crime analysis course stood out to Riberth thanks to the expertise of adjunct professor David Pritchard, Ph.D. (PPA, '10). “The class had three projects throughout the semester that involved hands-on work as a crime analyst,” she said. “An example of this was that we had to collect a footprint off of dirt with dental mold. Personally, I believe that real experiences and experiments are a great way of learning, especially in this field.”
Dr. Pritchard’s mentorship was key to Riberth’s growth as a student and practitioner. “I have had amazing professors at VCU,” she said. “Dr. Pritchard set a high bar throughout my college career. He would liven up the classroom with his ‘dad jokes’, which was helpful considering the heaviness of the course itself. He has a way of truly connecting with his students, and you can really tell that he loves what he does.”
Riberth is headed toward graduation in the spring of 2023. With security, defense, administrative, investigative and forensic skills in her repertoire, she is career-ready. Inspired by Dr. Pritchard’s compassion and motivated by a wealth of real-world experience, she feels well prepared to take on any challenge.