ASU faculty who inspire: Jesenia Pizarro

February 07, 2023 · 5 min read · By ASU Online
Arizona State University professor Jesenia Pizarro dives into her personal journey as a first-generation college student, and the life experiences that influenced her to pursue her passion in criminal justice studies.

Leaving everything behind for a better life

When Jesenia Pizarro was only five years old, she embarked on a life changing journey and moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland U.S. with her mother. In search of a better life, she soon found that moving away from home came with challenges such as language barriers and leaving family and loved ones behind.

As the only fluent English speaker in her family, Pizarro took on many roles as a child, including translating for her family. While Pizarro acknowledges that having her family rely on her at such a young age was a unique position to be in, she accredits this reliance to her independence and ability to succeed in her career as a first-generation college student.

“I didn't really have a traditional upbringing,” Pizarro said. “From the earliest age I remember at six years old, my mom would take me out of school so I could go with her and translate, like with the electric company. But that made me spunky and gritty, which definitely helped me when I went into school.”

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In this episode of Beyond the Screen, Arizona State University professor Jesenia Pizarro discusses her personal journey attending college as a first-generation student and pursuing her passion in criminal justice studies.

A childhood dream to create a just community

While Pizarro attributes her experiences as an immigrant to her drive and work ethic, another aspect of Pizarro’s childhood that motivated her career path in criminal justice was growing up in the violent era of the crack epidemic. 

“I grew up in public housing in the inner city of Newark, New Jersey, through the height of the crack epidemic,” Pizarro said. “I grew up surrounded by and seeing crime, and also seeing things that I perceived to be injustices sometimes. I always wanted to address injustices and do things to better my community and create an environment that was just and for everyone.”

This first-hand account of the crime and injustices sparked Pizarro’s interest in taking on a career in justice as a young girl. 

“While kids were playing teacher, I wanted to play cop, and I was going to be the judge that was going to make the community better,” Pizarro said.


Approaching criminal justice reform with research

Today, Pizarro holds a PhD in criminal justice, serves as the editor-in-chief of Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary and International Journal and conducts extensive research with the goal of making change in the justice system.

In Pizarro’s current research at ASU, she examines the risk for intimate partner homicide.

“One of the things that we know is that intimate partner homicides are probably one of the most preventable types of homicides,” Pizarro explained. “Particularly, because there are a lot of red flags before a partner kills their partner. Unlike other acts that might be more random, approximately half of the individuals who are murdered by their partners, who also tend to be women, have a history of prior domestic violence and abuse.”

Gathering data across six states, Pizarro aims to use this research to update and modify the existing risk assessment tools used by law enforcement. With these modifications, Pizarro hopes to help identify individuals, particularly women, at risk of being killed by their partners and save lives.


From a first-generation college student to an inspiring educator

Pizarro’s expertise in criminal justice positively impacts not only lawmaking and the justice system, but also the community of aspiring justice students and future public servants. Currently a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and an affiliate faculty in the Office of Gender-Based Violence at ASU, Pizarro’s courses are rooted in her comprehensive research and personal account of growing up surrounded by crime.

“I try to instill in my students an understanding of why they’re going to probably see the things that they're going to see in these communities, and it’s not that these people are bad people,” Pizarro explained. “By understanding some of the root causes and by educating my students, I'm hoping that I create some awareness and empathy.”

With her first-hand experience seeing interactions between law enforcement and members of the community, Pizarro acknowledges that there are both good and bad sides to the justice system.

“I think we see a lot of the negative things with the proliferation of the media, but we don't see a lot of the positive things,” Pizarro said. “I've been fortunate, or unfortunate, to see both sides. I know what it’s to have police knock down your door in the middle of the night and see a parent being dragged out to go to prison, but I've also seen law enforcement who worked tirelessly, and don't go home to try to crack a case and bring justice to a family who have lost a loved one. So I've seen both sides of the story, and I think it's very important to not only show the bad, but also show the good.”

In examining the root cause of crimes and the situational forces that have an effect on criminals, Pizarro’s goal is to teach future law enforcement to use critical thinking and facts about particular problems in society to make better choices in how they carry out their job as a professional in the justice system.


“Believe in yourself, not the haters”

The drive and ambition Pizarro has to make a difference in the world allowed her to turn the challenges she faced into a motivation to succeed.

“I wasn't the smartest in the room, and I wasn't the shining person that came in and had this great GRE score,” Pizarro said. “But one of the things that I had was grit, and I was willing to work the extra time and put in a lot of that effort to study to get to the point where I am today.”

Pizarro demonstrates that regardless of where you came from or the life struggles you inherit, believing in yourself and putting in the hard work and effort will take you wherever you want to go in life.

“​​There's always going to be people that are going to doubt you,” Pizarro said. “There's always going to be people that are going to see you as whatever stereotypes they might think about you. Don't give up, and don't believe what the naysayers are saying. Believe in yourself and not the haters.”

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