Inspiring grads: Kelsey Crawley

Kelsey Crawley (Joshua Clark/University of Illinois Chicago)

While working as a corrections officer in Massachusetts, Kelsey Crawley saw a need for reform within the criminal justice system and was drawn to become part of that change.

“I saw so many things while working at the jail that needed to change. As a corrections officer, I could help the people there day to day, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to create lasting change if I was just working in the jail,” she said.

She also saw the path that could help her become part of the solution. Crawley became Inspired by law students who came to the jail to teach some of the incarcerated men.

“I thought it was really interesting and decided that I would go to law school,” she said.

So, in 2018, Crawley enrolled at UIC John Marshall Law School with a focus on criminal law. She selected the school for its diverse group of students and scholarship opportunities.

“A long-term goal for me is to work on wrongful convictions,” she said. “I just want to have a positive impact on criminal law and the judicial system. I want to be a help in any way that I can to underserved communities, however that looks.”

During her time in law school, Crawley has faced personal challenges that put her path to graduation in jeopardy. In September 2018, a close family member died, and just two months later, she lost another close relative.

“With the stress of grieving the loss of my family members, I wound up failing a class, and I was like, ‘I’m done.’ My GPA dropped and I felt like I bombed my most important year,” she said.

Crawley’s academic struggles grew as she began to work full time to help family members who were now struggling financially.

“If it wasn’t for my faith in God and believing that there is a greater purpose, I would not have been able to complete my degree,” she said. “During my first year-and-a-half of school, it felt like there was one trial after another.”

Thinking of dropping out of law school, Crawley met with assistant dean Tania Luma, who suggested she instead consider taking a class on restorative justice, an approach to justice that focuses on resolving problems, repairing the harm and preventing future harm.

“I was feeling like, ‘What am I doing here?’ and then I started the program, and it was a safe space in law school. We did peace circles every week where we could discuss how we were feeling, and we all felt like we left the class lighter,” she said.

Through the restorative justice program, Crawley began working with kids from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at St. Sabina Academy on the South Side. She served as a mentor and organized peace circles for the students to share their stories and feelings.

“It was such a highlight of the week. The students there come from all backgrounds but most live in underdeveloped communities and experience trauma on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

“Being able to help the kids and see the impact we had on them changed my law school trajectory. My grades increased that semester. The following semester I made Dean’s List.”

In addition to working with students at St. Sabina Academy, Crawley was a substitute teacher at Chicago Public Schools a few days a week.

“Being a substitute teacher was another eye-opening experience where I was able to see the true lack of resources in certain communities,” she said. “The biggest blessing from all of it was being able to see the rawness and the realness of underdeveloped communities, which you don’t see or understand unless you experience it.”

“There’s a direct correlation from lack of resources to incarceration – the pipeline to prison. It made me think about how I can consistently serve my community while one day creating policies for long-lasting change. Because I think both are equally important.” 

As Crawley approaches graduation Dec. 12, she feels prepared for her future — whether her career takes her on the path of becoming a criminal law attorney, judge or senator.

“Law school was probably one of the most difficult things that I have ever gone through,” she said. “And I think if you’re able to overcome all of the challenges of law school — whether they’re big or small — it makes the degree matter that much more, and it makes times just reflecting on it that much sweeter. It definitely helps shape you into the person that you’re meant to be.”

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