Sight unseen, Jessica Peterson finds everything she was looking for at UNK

Jessica Peterson is finishing her first semester as an assistant professor in UNK’s Department of Criminal Justice. (Photos by Kosuke Yoshii, UNK Communications)
Jessica Peterson is finishing her first semester as an assistant professor in UNK’s Department of Criminal Justice. (Photos by Kosuke Yoshii, UNK Communications)

Title: Assistant professor, Department of Criminal Justice
Education: Bachelor of Science, criminal justice and psychology, Texas Christian University, 2013; Master of Arts, criminal justice, Indiana University, 2017; Doctorate, criminal justice, Indiana University, projected 2021.
Professional Associations: International Society for the Study of Rural Crime; American Society of Criminology; American Society of Criminology Division of Rural Criminology; American Society of Criminology Division of Policing.
Hobbies/Interests: Watercolor painting, listening to live music, watching live theater, traveling, eating at new places and all things Halloween.
Fun Fact: I grew up on a cattle ranch and played roller derby for like three months.

UNK Communications

KEARNEY – Jessica Peterson took a bit of a gamble when she accepted a faculty position with the University of Nebraska at Kearney last April.

Because of the pandemic, she didn’t have a chance to visit the campus or community before making her decision.

“I’d never been to Nebraska until I moved here,” said Peterson, who interviewed for the job from her Dallas apartment.

Although she couldn’t see it in person, the Texas native quickly realized UNK “fit all the things I was looking for.”

“I didn’t want to live in the middle of a big city,” said Peterson, whose hometown of Canton has about 3,500 residents.

UNK’s size was equally important. The university is large enough to offer an array of resources supporting faculty and students, yet small enough that it’s easy to develop close professional and personal connections on campus.

For Peterson, an assistant professor in UNK’s Department of Criminal Justice, those relationships made the transition to Nebraska, and her first full-time faculty position, much easier.

“I can’t say enough about how much I enjoy my colleagues,” she said. “Everyone has been great. I genuinely enjoy being here.”

She’s also impressed with the students.

“I always enjoy meeting students who are eager to learn, and I’ve met UNK students like that, who are truly interested in the subjects,” said Peterson, who taught introduction to criminal justice and juvenile justice courses this semester.

UNK’s focus on teaching was another selling point for Peterson. While she’s excited about research and the opportunity to collaborate with scholars across the University of Nebraska system, Peterson believes educating students should be a professor’s top priority.

“I didn’t want to be in a department where students are second fiddle,” she said. “I’m more interested in putting a lot of my time and effort into the students and into my classes. I’ve met a lot of colleagues here who have similar approaches.”

Peterson, who turns 30 on Thursday, wouldn’t be in the position she’s in today without “a lot of good professors” who encouraged and supported her as an undergraduate student.

She grew up in a “cop family” – her father was a police officer in a Dallas suburb for 11 years – but didn’t seriously consider a career in the field until college.

“I took an intro to criminal justice class and really fell in love with it,” she explained.

Peterson graduated from Texas Christian University with bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and psychology and briefly thought about working for a federal law enforcement agency before deciding to attend graduate school at Indiana University.

“Once I got to grad school, I realized how much I enjoy teaching,” she said. “That became the thing I was most interested in.”

Peterson worked as an associate instructor and research assistant while completing her master’s degree in criminal justice, then returned to Texas to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation. Much of her research focuses on policing and the criminal justice system in rural communities.

“I’m interested in the experiences of people who are on the outskirts of the justice system, people whose voices aren’t heard as much in our research,” Peterson said. “Rural voices are not the center of a lot of research in the criminal justice field.”

“I know it sounds cliché, but I really do enjoy trying to help people who don’t feel like they’ve been heard before,” she added. “That applies to both my research and my teaching.”

As a researcher, her goal is to help improve the criminal justice system by addressing real-world challenges and issues. She relies on firsthand observations and interviews to learn from both law enforcement officers and the people they interact with.

“We can talk about theory all day long, but I’d rather focus on something that I believe can make an impact by helping those working in the system do their job better or helping them build better relationships with the community, which is certainly important today,” Peterson said.

Peterson is a founding member of the International Society for the Study of Rural Crime and the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Rural Criminology. She’s presented on rural policing at an American Society of Criminology conference in San Francisco and is co-editing a book, “Research Methods for Rural Criminologists,” that’s expected to publish next year.