Stop. Take a moment. Think way back, or maybe more recently for some, to when you first knew you wanted to be a police officer. What factors in your life pushed you to accomplish your goal? What drove you to taking the first step to where you are today? How old were you? Thousands of young adults across the country begin their careers not at 18 or 21, but much younger at 14, 15 or 16; they become members of their local police department’s Explorer Program.

Law Enforcement Exploring (LEE) is an exciting program for young adults ages 14 through 21. It’s part of the Learning for Life organization that offers hands-on career exploration for young adults in 12 core areas. With law enforcement being the largest group, police agencies on local, state and federal levels sponsor programs.

The goal of LEE is to provide a community resource for young adults interested in law enforcement as a career. The program is designed to educate youth by developing an interest in law enforcement while instilling life skills such as leadership, academic excellence, respect and physical fitness. The program also works to develop relationships between the police department and the community’s youth. The program is unique in many ways and affords young adults opportunities they may otherwise not get.

I knew I wanted a career in law enforcement after becoming an Explorer with the Ann Arbor, Michigan Police Department and going on my first ride along at age 15. I was captured by the excitement of patrol. I remember getting to use the radio for the first time, getting to activate the emergency equipment while rolling code 3, and watching officers interact with each other and the public. Looking back, each of these things were small and as a police officer today, it has become routine. But at the young age of 15, nothing could compare to it. Nothing came close to the feeling of donning my bullet-proof vest and my crisp uniform and sitting passenger seat in a patrol car for a shift.

As an Explorer, I liked being surrounded by other motivated young adults such as myself. It was my home away from home. As a team, we pushed each other to strive to be better and become the best at what we did. We shared ideas and plans and dreamed of our futures in policing. We made lasting friendships and memories that will never fade away.

Of course, after graduating high school, we each went our separate ways. Some went to college, some enlisted in the military and others worked small jobs. What we all had in common was the drive to accomplish our goal of becoming police officers. Today, I’m proud to say that most of my fellow explorers are employed by major law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The best part is that we continue to stay in touch and share stories about our experiences in our current departments.

While I enjoyed learning how to conduct a vehicle stop or respond to calls for service, most of all, I enjoyed the officers. To me, my advisors made the program what it was. I looked up to them. I saw their dedication and their genuine interest to help each of us. Our advisors were motivated to see us succeed and provided us opportunities for success such as teaching us professionalism and how to conduct ourselves on and off duty.

Our advisors taught us pride and what it meant to be part of something larger than ourselves. They taught us how to work toward a greater mission. We traveled. Our advisors took us to new places and showed us that there was more to the world than just southeast Michigan. They gave us direction in life. They also showed us there was more to life than policing.  We learned that  having a well-rounded outlook would, in the long run, help us. In every way, our advisors helped us to achieve our goals.

The Explorer Program undoubtedly helped me obtain my career. It gave me an introductory foundation for a job as a police officer and certainly prepared me for success in the academy. I always held that once I was able to, I would become an advisor so that I may give back to a program that helped get me where I am today. After getting hired by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and graduating the academy and field training, I immediately became involved with my department’s program.

As an advisor, I see my teenage self in the young explorers. I remember back to when I was in their place with so much ahead of me and so much to learn. I remember what it’s like to be an impressionable young adult and to want nothing more than to be a cop. Today I see how excited they are to attend weekly meetings and learn all about this fulfilling career. I see the pride they have for the department and community they serve.

My explorers transform and gain confidence, respect and maturity, as they grow older. Their drive to succeed, to pursue their goals and to become police officers is awesome to watch and giving them the tools they need to obtain this job while watching them build upon those is truly inspiring. Watching your former Explorer graduate the police academy, knowing you helped cultivate that desire, that persistence, that drive is a unique experience in and of itself.

Becoming an advisor has helped me as well. It has allowed me to improve my tactics on the street because by training explorers, I see where common mistakes are made. As an advisor, I’m motivated to perform my job to the best of my abilities knowing that I have a group of young adults that look up to me. Their excitement reminds me why I chose this career and why this job is better than any other.

So as you read this think about that group of teenagers, maybe in your department or a neighboring agency, who are striving to obtain what you have: a career as LEO.  We all have responsibilities outside of work.  Being an advisor takes time and dedication. However, would you consider helping out as little or as much as you can?  Would you consider being the officer that Explorers want to emulate?  Can you be a role model offering guidance and direction?  Just  think about the feeling you’ll have when you see that you’ve inspired just one young adult to discover their career in law enforcement.

Michael Rodriguez is 27 years old from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He attended Michigan State University and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminal Justice and Spanish. Michael joined the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department after graduating college in 2008. He is currently assigned as a patrol officer to Northeast Area Command.