Julissa Muniz

Julissa Muniz

PhD Candidate: Supporting, Educating Incarcerated Children

As Told To Colleen Mastony

I study learning systems in carceral settings, specifically in juvenile detention centers.

In my work, I want to recreate this schema of what it means to be a student and what it means to learn. In no way am I arguing that we should be investing in or expanding prisons. I don’t believe any child should be incarcerated.

I think when children are incarcerated, it is a failure of our mental health services, our education systems and our child protective services.

But, if we are going to have juveniles in prison, I want to know how can we better support these children? How can we provide healing and love, and how we can show kids they are more than this status?

I was drawn to this work because I empathize with these kids. I see a lot of myself in their lives and their stories. I was raised by a single mother, who was an immigrant from Mexico, and I got pregnant and had a baby when I was 16 years old.

Most girls from my community who got pregnant dropped out. But I was a top student and that pushed administrators to see me differently.

The principal and most of the teachers rallied around me. My mom was unwavering in her support. That helped me continue to excel in school.

When a recruiter from University of California Berkeley visited my high school in my junior year, I approached him after his presentation and told him about my daughter—who was then one— and he said: ‘I’m so glad you came to talk to me.’

It turned out Berkeley has a program for teen parents. That spring, I got into Berkeley and became the first teen mom to graduate from my high school.

But it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for my drama teacher and a group of students who paid my application fee to Berkeley.

There were many people who stepped into my life at just the right moment to give me what I needed. I was more than a teen mother, but if no one recognized that and no one ever told me that, who knows where I would have ended up.

I’m keenly aware of the fact that some people try to use my story against others. They will say, ‘If she did it, why can’t you?’

Instead of shaming kids, I think we need to ask: What worked about that situation and how can we build more systems to help teen mothers and other young people?

At Berkeley, I majored in ethnic studies and, after graduation, I went to Harvard University where I earned a master’s in education. From there, I came to Northwestern to get my PhD.

I was deeply honored in April to win the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a fellowship for immigrants and their children. I’m using it to help children from communities like the one where I grew up.

My daughter turned 11 over the summer. She and I have come so far. As she gets older, I want her to pursue her passions with her whole heart, and I want her to live in a society that is more just than the one we have now.

All kids deserve that.