Think college internships and images of corporate America-an office somewhere, a desk, a phone- are easily conjured. Sure, the hours are long, the pay is nonexistent, and the lack of respect from employees is fairly evident in the grunt work that’s assigned.

And then there are the internships like the one offered by the Forest Park Police Department, where students accompany officers on patrol duty and observe autopsies.

“We want to give them as much exposure as we can, but safety is first and foremost,” Lt. Steve Weiler said. “We don’t want to put them in any harmful situation or one where they would have to testify [in court]. And it is frustrating that we can’t show them everything, we can’t send them on every call and we can’t give them as much exposure as we can a recruit.”

Weiler administers the program, overseeing the interviewing, hiring and scheduling. The unpaid experience typically lasts for a semester, with the actual hours worked dependent upon a school’s requirement.

According to Weiler, the department established its internship program in 2003 and works with junior and senior college students from such schools as Western University, Concordia College, Northeastern, Loyola and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Interns do enjoy a rotational schedule that includes stints in dispatch, all three patrol shifts and with department administrators, but their actual participation and specific duties are limited and subject to a supervising officer’s discretion.

This semester, the police department is hosting two interns, both seniors attending Concordia University in River Forest: Chicago resident Lisa Barajaz and Bensenville resident Diliana Velasquez.

Both young women entered college as education majors, but as their interests evolved, they switched to law and justice.

“I went into law enforcement because government work appeared interesting, and I wanted a greater understanding of the law and the rights of the individual,” Velasquez said. One of her professors, a former dispatcher for the Forest Park Police Department, suggested she apply for the internship.

After working campus security, Barajaz began drifting away from her initial major of music education. A few law classes and a ride-along with the River Forest Police Department convinced her that a vocation in blue was for her. While she was casting about for a suitable internship, a friend of a friend recommended that she check out Forest Park.

While Weiler points out that being a cop is not all action and excitement, carrying with it responsibility for more mundane – but essential – tasks like filing, completion of the dreaded paperwork and generating activity during downtime, Barajaz and Velasquez are discovering their own set of challenges and frustrations.

Barajaz, for example, finds the decisions confronting each officer quite complex because “Not every call goes according to the book,” she said.

During her tenure in the dispatch center, Barajaz said she felt the pangs of longing when adrenaline pumping calls were received.

“You hear an exciting call come in and say to yourself, ‘Wow, I wish I could be there,'” she said.

Velasquez said she found the amount of knowledge and procedures necessary for police work to be quite demanding. She also shares her colleague’s lack of enthusiasm for dispatch.

“It’s great to see how they handle calls, though,” Velasquez said.

Those complaints seem minor, however, compared to the learning experience afforded the interns. During ride-alongs, a favorite activity of both interns, Barajaz and Velasquez said that supervising officers will always ask their opinions of how they handled a particular situation.

“At a traffic stop, for example,” Barajaz said, “the officer will ask, ‘What do you think I should do? Should I give him a ticket?'”

Velasquez got her first opportunity to fire a handgun at the firing range and “loved it.”

She also mentioned a call the department received while she was on the overnight shift, a report of a jeep driving on the opposite side of the expressway. Fearful that someone was going to get hurt, Velasquez acknowledged, “It was a pure adrenaline rush to see just about every cop on duty going to assist.”

For Barajaz, her most memorable moment came while she was in dispatch. A detective had invited her to attend an autopsy. Barajaz eagerly accepted the invitation, fending off the detective’s teasing that she would faint during the procedure.

“He kept asking me, ‘Are you gonna faint? Are you gonna be sick?'” Barajaz said. “As it turned out, I was in awe. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Afterward, I was hungry and said, ‘Let’s go to lunch.’ The detective looked at me and told me I was sick.”

In addition to the experience, Barajaz and Velasquez give high marks to the department for its close-knit atmosphere.

“I can’t wait to graduate so I can start testing for each department,” Barajaz said.

Velasquez once considered working for the court system, but said that this internship changed her mind.

“It’s prepared me very well for my future career,” she said.

Should they so choose, Barajaz and Velasquez would not be the first interns to apply to the department upon graduation. Weiler said the department has hired two former interns over the years for dispatch and parking enforcement positions.

Although some internship programs attract their share of the young and the bumbling, the kind that prompt employers to suggest an alternative major, officer Tom Cannon, who has supervised interns, has encountered nary a one, he said.

“They really are into the experience,” he said. “They’re eager to see what we’re doing, and they want to get as much out of it as possible.”

He added that he gets a charge out of observing the interns, one of whom was Barajaz. “Their enthusiasm is almost rejuvenating,” Cannon said. “It’s great to see civilians interested in police work.”