When Rikki Vela arrived at Lakeland as a freshmen, she was set on a career in law enforcement and a retirement job as a mortician. This summer, an internship experience near home introduced her to a career that’s the best of both worlds – the coroner’s office.
Vela, a senior criminal justice major from Waukegan, Ill., interned in the Lake County Coroner’s office from early May through early August. She assumed the experience would include lots of paperwork and office-related tasks, but she was pleasantly surprised at the amazing experiences that awaited her.
She did her share of paperwork, but she also went on ride-alongs for cases involving fatalities, assisted with autopsies and finger printed cadavers in what became a very hands-on internship.
The experience led her to enthusiastically shift her post-Lakeland career focus.
“I want to be a deputy coroner or a death investigator, which are the same person, depending on the department,” Vela said. “It’s like being a police officer and mortician at same time.”
Her internship, which was unpaid, covered virtually all of the jobs entrusted to the coroner’s office, from filling out death certificates to the relationship between the coroner’s office and funeral homes to organ donation.
“I think learning how to draw fluids from a dead body was my favorite, but there were so many,” Vela said. “It was all so amazing. Never in million years did I think I’d be allowed to do all the things I did.”
Vela has family members who work in the funeral home industry, which fueled her interest. And while Vela is clearly fascinated by the makeup of the human body, a big part of her motivation is tied to human emotion.
“I want to help people understand why their loved one passed away or took their live or decided to go on the path they did,” Vela said. “It’s helping find closure for people who don’t know why.”
Vela said she’s grateful to Lakeland’s criminal justice faculty for preparing her for the real-world situations she encountered this summer. Her classwork, plus guess speakers from organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Natural Resources, have shown her how to apply what she’s learned on the job.
Vela will intern again with the Lake County Coroner’s office this December during Lakeland’s Christmas break, and she’s thinking about studying forensic pathology after earning her bachelor’s degree at Lakeland. She’s also an art minor, and she’d like to help the office create some marketing materials about their internship program.