Education graduate helps people impact communities in New York City

Jim Carlson
August 10, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What warms Christina Walker’s heart, she says, is people trusting her with their dreams and aspirations. As manager of fellowship initiatives at John Jay College’s Institute for Justice and Opportunity, she and that organization are charged with supporting students to realize those dreams.


Christina Walker, a 2018 College of Education graduate, is manager of fellowship initiatives at John Jay College's Institute for Justice and Opportunity in New York City.

IMAGE: Provided

Walker, who in 2018 received a bachelor’s degree in special education and master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in language and literacy education through the College of Education’s Integrated Undergraduate-Graduate program at Penn State, wanted to combine education and leadership development while still mentoring and coaching students.

She found the opportunity to merge those roles at the Prisoner Reentry Institute, now renamed the Institute for Justice and Opportunity (The Institute) in New York City.

Walker started her post-graduate career working as an education support intern for an alternative to incarceration (ATI) program called the Woman’s Opportunity Rehabilitation Center in Hempstead, New York. She doubled as a math tutor for the recovery and prevention nonprofit Family and Children’s Association.

Walker was able to combine her love for teaching, organizational development and project management development at The Institute, a reentry, nonprofit organization at John Jay College that supports people who have been directly impacted, incarcerated or rescued. Its role is to help people attain career opportunities to bridge the gap between educational inequities, create a community of support and advocate for fairer policies that historically marginalize the reentry community.

“I really love all of that and I just love how the fellowship program, in particular incorporated what I did at Penn State when I was a D.C. Social Justice fellow,” Walker said. “As someone who successfully completed a fellowship program before, I understood how valuable that is to help someone achieve goals and impact their community. That's an authentic way to learn and give back.”

Walker’s job is multi-faceted. She has roles with the Pinkerton Fellowship Initiative, Tow Policy/Advocacy Fellowship and David Rockefeller Fund Fellowship; collectively, they deal with service work in New York City’s five boroughs, and support students’ engagement with youth justice, policy advocacy work and philanthropy. 

“It takes a village,” Walker said. “A big part of the process is having a village continue to support you over time. And that's something that I've learned just in my two years here is that if you don't have the people and the support around you to make it happen, it's really hard to follow through.

“The process of making it clear to our clients and our community about what resources are available takes time and requires a great commitment. It reminds me a lot of being in a special education setting where it's all about individualized support. It's really important to understand what that person wants for themselves … really listening first and saying ‘what do you need right now, and where do you want to be?’ And then we cater and tailor our support to that person, based upon the things that we have at The Institute and within our network.”

Walker said she works with students who are matriculated and non-matriculated, and who have not had legal involvement as well as those who have had lived experiences with the legal system. “Learning to be confident in my own ability to lead was the first thing that I had to do to serve our students and our population, because fear serves nobody,” Walker said. “Especially when it comes to myself; I had to get comfortable with my own talents and my own abilities so I could show up at my best every day.”

Walker, like countless others affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, also had to overcome a lack of face-to-face contact with her students.

“It's really difficult because a lot of our students would say, ‘I can't feel your energy,’ or I have a lot of students who say, ‘I can’t get a good vibe on the group,’” she said. “And that's important to them, so finding new ways to connect people through a screen has been a really big challenge.”

Not everything was substandard, though, as Walker and colleagues attempted to create space to talk about issues and find joy in a virtual community.

“I think one of the beautiful things about being virtual is that you don't have to go on a train or take a bus or get an Uber to see somebody to come online for a few moments,” she said. “We can have more face time, for lack of a better word. Sometimes it's overwhelming to be on a screen all day, but sometimes it's really good to just see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice and know you have someone who is interested in your wellness. I think these are some of the ways that our fellowship became more robust this year.”

Walker said she believes the world is in a stage in which people’s humanity — especially Black and Brown people — is questioned. “I’ve been engaged in conversations about how to find a balance of seeing yourself as a human being and creating a life worth living,” she said about her students. “And then how do you define self-worth and just be comfortable with that? We can help our students make decisions and find places and spaces that will accept them; within our program is one of those spaces.”

Despite the variety of ups, downs and obstacles, Walker speaks passionately about her work. “I love supporting people in their own career endeavors,” she said. “I joke around with my friends and say that this is what it must be like to be a life coach. I love that because so many people sell themselves short; I think it's a privilege to be in a position to help students and other professionals get to their goals and introduce them to opportunities that they didn't even know existed. I love doing that and I'm thankful that I get to do that through our fellowship programs.”

Walker said she never would have imagined how going through the College of Education’s special education and curriculum and instruction programs would be so critical to her current worklife.

“I bring it up all the time. I always think about Dr. Ruhl’s class (Kathy Ruhl, professor emerita, education) about how to enter into your classroom. She taught me about behavioral management and intervention techniques and about creating a safe and productive classroom,” Walker said. “Similar to designing a classroom, I am designing educational spaces for our students online. You have to think of the virtual space as a classroom, how to read body language, how to motivate students if you see them not being engaged … it’s positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

“I think the curriculum and education piece plays a big part of this because it’s designed for long-term objectives … long-term goals. I'm really amazed how much transference there is between my degrees and the work that I do now.”

In her advocacy work, theories to draw on are not devoid of emotion and they correlate well to restorative justice practices and criminal justice reform, she noted. “People who make mistakes and break the law … they're not empty, they're not soulless, they had experiences that contributed to those behaviors,” Walker said. 

“Are we going to take the approach of understanding where that comes from and scaffold in support — how you would do it in a special education course — or are we just going to believe that they have no soul, they have no sense. That is not true. It's just amazing to see how we can apply this to the work that I'm doing.”

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Last Updated August 10, 2021