Hand in Hand

Student pursues graduate degree in psychology so she can help troubled teens

By Stephanie Weaver

When Jessica Turral was faced with the decision to stay in Loyola’s graduate psychology program and step down as director of an organization she founded, she asked for advice from a surprising source: male juveniles in the Baltimore City Detention Center being tried as adults.

Loyola students volunteer with Hand in Hand in 2012

Loyola students volunteer with Hand in Hand in 2012

These young men are her students, accessing education and other services through Turral’s non-profit, Hand in Hand.

The young men begged her to stay in school. They recognized that furthering her education would, in turn, help them, even if it meant she had to take time away to focus on her studies. Their support allowed her guilt of abandoning them to subside, and the 27-year-old is now on her way to earning her doctorate in clinical psychology.

Turral founded Hand in Hand five years ago after visiting the city’s detention center during her internship at the mayor’s office.

“I tell this story all the time and it never loses its power with me,” Turral said about founding the non-profit.

At the time, she knew nothing about the prison system or youths being tried as adults. Her visit shocked her. She found herself in a room with teenagers who reminded her of her own brothers. Many of the prisoners were serving for the third or fourth time and not able to take advantage of the programs at the prison—all because of their age.

“It was heartbreaking to me,” Turral said.

Starting a non-profit proved to be harder than Turral had anticipated, but with the help of an Open Society Institute Baltimore Fellowship, her dream became a reality. Her organization connects the youths with mentors, mental health professionals, and education opportunities in and out of prison.

As the director, she was often asked to speak on behalf of her students in court. Every time she went to court to advocate for them, the judge would thank her for speaking, but explain that the court favored opinions from experts in psychology when considering release or additional jail time.

How do you become an expert in the eyes of the court? You need a doctorate of psychology.

She began researching graduate and doctoral psychology programs at area universities and decided Loyola was the perfect fit. Her professors and peers immediately supported her work and her mission.

“Loyola is open to who you want to be and what you want to do,” Turral said, who started her classes in September of 2012.

Between Hand in Hand and her Loyola commitments—classes along with assistantship work at The Study and Center for Community Service and Justice—she was having difficulty juggling her priorities. It was a difficult decision, but she chose to transition her role from executive director to board member. She is, however, still very active in the organization.

“I had to be realistic with myself. I prayed and talked to people—my students and professors—about what to do. Everyone said I had to finish school to help my students,” Turral said. “Stepping down as director was the best decision for everyone. As a board member I can still help to reshape the program as we go forward.”

And Loyola is helping reshape the organization. Turral’s Loyola professors—most notably Chelsea Howe, Psy.D., Adanna Johnson-Evans, Ph.D., and La Keita Carter, Psy.D.—have all encouraged her to be the best person and clinician. They have also offered to help her research how to best serve her students. Howe is an affiliate faculty member in psychology, Johnson-Evans is an assistant professor of psychology, and Carter is the psychology division director at the Loyola Clinical Centers.

Turral’s ultimate goal is to make Hand in Hand a nationwide program. For now, Turral and other members of the organization are restructuring the program to focus on how communities can add value to the lives of men of color.

Her classes at Loyola have opened her eyes to the oppression that various communities can face. Community is an important aspect, Turral said, as it’s the place these men come from and potentially return to after prison.

Many non-profits go into communities as saviors, wanting to fix or save people, Turral explained. However, she believes anyone involved in service initiatives should go to communities as a partner who is willing to learn about the environment and how best to address issues effectively.

Her students taught her that. The same students who pushed her to pursue a doctorate so she could make even more of a positive impact on their lives.

“My students are giving me clarity and purpose. I’ve been blessed to know who I want to work with and what I want to do—a gift given to me by my students. In return, I’m giving them this gift [a doctorate of psychology in clinical psychology] because they’ve given me so much,” Turral said.

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