By Alaina Grady
Eighteen-year-old Sarah Harper left her small town after graduating in 2009 and moved eight hours away looking for something more challenging, becoming a correctional officer. Harper attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette, where she worked to be involved in the prison justice system.
Harper struggled with being a woman in the program, double standards, dealing with harassment of her male counterparts, and proving herself.
AG: What was the change like going from a small town girl living with your parents to moving alone and being so far away?
Harper: I grew up in Highland, Michigan, and I haven’t lived in many places. Originally I wanted to stay local and go to Oakland University, but I decided it wasn’t good for me. I chose to transfer eight hours away to Northern Michigan University. It taught me a lot of independence that I never had before.
It was really hard for me, I was so young and I knew absolutely no one at all, so I had to rely on myself for everything. It didn’t help that I decided to move when there was a blizzard and we had around four feet of snow. I remember sitting in my dorm looking out the window thinking, “What did I just do?”
This transition taught me a lot of responsibility. Small things like if my tires needed air or oil changes, that I used to depend on my dad to help me with, and suddenly I was thrown into a life where I had to do it all myself. I didn’t realize how much I took for granted.
AG: What was life like after you entered the police force program?
Harper: It was very difficult for me. There were a lot of changes in that period of time. It did teach me confidence and perseverance in making my own decisions. I doubted myself for a little while, especially for the program I was in, but it ended up being a huge achievement for me.
AG: What challenges did you face while being involved in this program/career path?
Harper: I dealt with a lot of power struggles when I was involved in the police academy. There are double standards in police programs between male and females. In my experience, I noticed that the men usually resent the women because they feel threatened. For instance, “Women can’t get this job unless the standards are lower,” so obviously people are going to resent that if they have to do more work for the same job.
For me personally, I had a hard time with that as well, as my family did not think that I should be going into law enforcement, because they felt women shouldn’t be able to go into law enforcement in general. I never felt threatened, though, because I was very sure it was what I wanted to do.
AG: How did you work to overcome these barriers?
Harper: I made it my goal to do all male standards in the police academy because I went into it feeling like I needed to prove myself worthy; mostly because all of the guys were really big, buff guys and here I was, not a big guy at all.
I was very timid, they even called me “smiles,” which, when you’re in a room with a ton of men, you know that’s not a good nickname to have, because they’re making fun of you.
I began training with two guys, I did my morning runs with them. They were able to get me to the push-up standard of men and that was a big accomplishment for me. I wanted my instructor to know that I could do anything the men could do.
AG: What was it like going from being a correctional officer to a stay-at-home mom?
Harper: It was a sacrifice to stay at home not just financially, but you’re initially giving up your independence as well. I feel real tough, I work in the prison system and then I decide to become a stay-at-home mom.
It was a real 180 for me, despite also being a dream of mine for a while. Your whole identity shifts, you go from contributing in society bringing in an income, to then spending time at home raising kids who solely depend on you.
Also with me being young, I feel like people assume I never went to college or gave up anything to be a mom – but I did; I chose to do that for my family.