CHARLESTON, Ill. (WCIA) — If you asked Marisol Gamboa twenty years ago, she never thought the word chief would precede her name.

She had just become a patrol officer in a small Texas town after graduating from a community college police academy.

“I had to pretty much show everybody else there, all the other male sergeants, that I was just as capable of doing the job just as well as they were,” recalls Gamboa.

It was not too hard for her to find the motivation. At the time, Gamboa was a single mother of two. She says a career in law enforcement meant financial stability.

On top of that, Gamboa was and is a first-generation American, and the first in her family to attend college. Her parents moved from Mexico to the United States in the 1970s.

Chief Gamboa’s parents

“We grew up very poor. We grew up in a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom trailer, and there was 10 of us. Eight siblings and my mom and dad,” explains Gamboa.

Her family’s humble beginnings is what made her reach for more. She wanted to show her parents the sacrifices they made were well worth it.

“I wanted something that was going to make them proud, and also give me something that was rewarding and giving back to the community,” says Gamboa. “My parents do love to give back to the community because the United States has been very, very good to them.”

Gamboa climbed the ranks in Texas — going from patrol officer, to sergeant, and eventually to lieutenant.

In January of 2022, she picked up her life in Texas and moved it to central Illinois for the opportunity of a lifetime.

She had received an unexpected call about an open police chief position at Eastern Illinois University.

“When this position became available, it was not something that I was looking for,” recalls Gamboa. “I was very comfortable where I was at.”

While comfort may be convenient, Gamboa says you need to push yourself sometimes. That is exactly what she did when she accepted the chief job. Now, she is the first woman and Hispanic person to fill the role.

Gamboa says working on a college campus also gives her the chance to inspire students, especially other Latinas like EIU criminal justice major, Kristal Munoz.

“I [learned] in my classes about recidivism,” says Munoz. “It’s really infuriating to see how the system is handling things, and I know that the best why to help is to just get in the middle of it.”

Munoz, now a junior, has been working at the police department since her freshman year.

She wants to help formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet, and says working with Chief Gamboa and the other officers helps her envision that future.

“[I see] how they try to connect with the student body, and how it is about trying to protect them,” explains Munoz. “I definitely think it prepares me for wanting to work with people who have been out of the system.”

And for others following similar paths, Chief Gamboa has one key piece of advice that has helped her achieve success.

“Some officers tend to lose that initial reason why they became an officer,” she says. “[It’s about] knowing your community and staying focused as far as why you actually got into law enforcement.”