Michael Kim and Leonard Avila are part of an evolving dream at Golden West College.
The two young rookies graduated, with 29 others, from the college’s latest Police Academy class last week. They now are on the threshold of becoming full-time police officers.
“This is something I’ve wanted since I was a kid growing up in South Korea,” said Kim, 25.
“Ever since I got out of the Marine Corps,” added Avila, 23, “I’ve wanted to be a police officer. This project really helped me.”
Avila was referring to Project AERO, an 18-month-old program at the community college aimed at helping minorities qualify for, and then actually graduate from, the academy.
AERO stands for Advanced Ethnic Representation and Opportunities. The project helps young minority students who want to be officers fulfill that dream. And AERO itself is somewhat of a dream come true, college officials said.
Golden West College President Judith Valles said AERO spun off from the hopes and dreams of police chiefs she spoke with shortly after she took over at the community college two years ago.
What she found, she said, is that most police departments are in great need of minority officers. The chiefs, as well as people in the minority communities, asked Valles for help, which is how AERO started.
“As the ethnic fabric of our community changes, it is critical to reflect this multiculturalism in our police departments,” Valles said. “Project AERO, which has received state and national recognition for its aggressive and innovative program, has already made a major difference in bridging cultural understanding.”
Art Delgado, a heavyset, cheerful, booming-voiced former Costa Mesa police officer, is the project’s director. In explaining what the program is, he starts by telling what the program is not:
“It’s not a quota-hire thing. And it’s not a lowering of standards of the Police Academy. What we do is get these candidates prepared so that they can qualify for the academy and then complete the courses.”
Delgado said many minority candidates for the academy have academic problems, including difficulties in mastering English.
“I tell these kids: ‘I want to help you realize your dream. But in order to help you, you’ve got to be prepared.’ I tell them that we have this program that will enable them to meet the standards of all the police departments,” he said.
Delgado said the college’s Assessment Center gives participants academic tests that indicate whether remedial education is needed.
“So then these kids take courses,” he said, “here at the college, until they’re ready, until they’re prepared, and then they apply for Police Academy.”
He added that many of the college courses taken by the students count toward an associate of arts degree.
It is not necessary to get an AA degree to graduate from the academy, but Delgado said he urges all students to aim for a college degree.
“The more education you have, the more you can advance as a police officer,” he noted.
In addition to helping minorities with academic problems, AERO helps students financially. “It costs a total of about $2,500 for a kid to get through Police Academy,” Delgado said. “That includes the fees and the cost of such things as uniforms, batons and books. So what we do is try to get scholarships for some of these kids. We also get students who have already graduated to donate their uniforms.”
Kim and Avila, both products of the current graduating class, said in recent interviews that the biggest help they got from Project AERO was financial support.
“I needed financial help, and this project helped me with that,” said Avila, who lives in Walnut Grove. “Project AERO most definitely made the difference. . . . It’s kind of like they set my whole career up. Because without AERO, I never would have gone through the academy.”
Kim added that “without AERO, I never would have been able to start this (Police Academy) program.”
Kim received AERO financial aid and a scholarship funded by the Korean community in Orange County.
Delgado said various ethnic groups also help by providing scholarships.
“The Korean community is so supportive of this program that it gives Project AERO a check for $2,500 for every Korean who qualifies for admission to this academy,” he said. “The Hispanic community also is giving us good financial support for Hispanics who qualify for the Police Academy.”
Graduates of the 18-week academy course usually are quickly hired by police departments all over Southern California. Kim and Avila are on the verge of being hired by the police department of the Los Angeles Rapid Transit District, Delgado said.
Overall career opportunities are good, he added, and police pay is better than ever: “Starting salary for these new police officers ranges from $28,000 to $32,000 a year, and that’s good pay for a young man.”
College officials said Project AERO has so far placed about 40 of its academy graduates with California police departments.
“The communities are the big winner in this,” Delgado said. “You just can’t imagine how much it helps a police department to have these officers working with people from their own ethnic community.
“I’ll give you an example,” he said. “Last January, one of our Project AERO Korean graduates was hired by the Garden Grove Police Department. When he was hired, the big Korean community in that city wanted to have a banquet for this new officer. . . .
“This kid, in his new police uniform, came into that room and started talking to all those people in Korean. And they went wild. They started bowing to each other and smiling and showing an appreciation you can’t imagine. It really meant a lot to the people of this community to see one of their own in a police uniform.
“Believe me,” Delgado said, “it also means a lot to police work. Police get better cooperation from the various (ethnic) communities when the communities see one of their own working with the police. They have more confidence and more trust, because the officer can communicate in their language and in their culture.”