Crystal Austin hopes her research can someday help change the juvenile justice system. She will pursue a counseling/psychology doctorate at the University at Albany.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Commencement 2012 profile: Crystal AustinTweet
Helping youths as part of the Black Student Union’s U.T.U.R.N. mentoring program gave Crystal Austin the impetus to pursue a career working with – and for – incarcerated juveniles.
“You can touch more than one or two or 10 at a time with research,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to conduct the research that provides factual evidence for a reworking of the juvenile justice system. It’s not working now – the recidivism rates are too high. Something needs to change. I know (the goal) is ambitious, but it’s so necessary.”
Austin, a 23-year-old double-major in psychology and human development from Queens, came to Binghamton University after being impressed by the campus’ community-like appeal.
“Binghamton felt the most urban,” she said. “Some might be surprised by that, but it reminded me the most – in terms of structures and buildings – of a city. Cornell felt foreign; Binghamton felt comfortable.”
Austin knew late in high school that she wanted to major in psychology and become a counselor. By the time she was a junior, she decided to pursue a second degree in human development from the College of Community and Public Affairs. Human development has served as a great complement to psychology because its focus is on “counseling with a client-centered orientation,” she said, while psychology can be research-based with an emphasis on science.
She began taking advantage of her skills by participating in the U.T.U.R.N. program. It was a natural outreach for Austin, who has an incarcerated older brother.
“I knew I wanted to work with troubled youth and people in the prison system because of my personal experiences with my brother and other family members,” she said. “When I found about U.T.U.R.N., I knew it would be perfect for me.”
U.T.U.R.N. mentors meet on Sundays and take a bus to Lansing Residential Center or the MacCormick Secure Center. Binghamton students break into groups and meet with the teen-age residents, holding workshops on self-esteem and future plans.
“When you start the program, you realize that they are kids with the same issues and similar backgrounds as we had,” Austin said. “A lot of them come from the New York City area, so we can relate to them on a lot of levels. For that reason, they respected and appreciated us. We just wanted to get to know them and provide support.”
For Austin, the support key was to treat the youths without the stigma of being a criminal.
“Once we established that rapport, we could talk about school and education,” she said. “As time progressed, I treated them like I would a little cousin. … You could see a definite change over the semester. Some girls didn’t want to talk or share with the group. But toward the end of sessions, they would share a poem and give you a hug and say, ‘It meant a lot that you were here.’ They opened up to us. That was the biggest success we could ask for.”
Austin not only spent three years with U.T.U.R.N., but also was accepted to the McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program and later joined psychology associate professor Matthew Johnson’s Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory. Austin’s research on perceived discrimination and its effects on people’s mental health was presented at conferences at the University of Buffalo, University of Delaware, University of Maryland and at the Eastern Psychological Association Conference in Pittsburgh.
“(Crystal) has worked very hard to determine how the deleterious effects of discrimination may be mitigated by other factors,” Johnson said. “She is smart, eloquent and serious; but above all she has a big heart. For all of the opportunities open to her, she is determined to make an impact in the lives of youngsters who are incarcerated. … She will clearly make Binghamton University proud.”
“Her character and tenacity make her a tremendous asset to the profession and to the University,” said doctoral candidate Jared McShall, who works with Austin in Johnson’s lab. “I have no doubt that she will excel in everything she does.”
Human Development chair Leo Wilton also expects big things from Austin, calling her “one of the most extraordinary, brilliant and talented students” he has ever taught.
“She is clearly one of those students whom we will be learning of her monumental contributions in the future,” Wilton said. “I believe strongly that Ms. Austin clearly possesses the talent and caliber that is indicative of a high potential for success in the field of counseling psychology. She will provide a legacy of a cadre of outstanding student leaders at Binghamton.”
Austin has supplemented her coursework and research with an internship at the Broome-Tioga branch of Workforce NY, where she helps people use computers, create résumés and cover letters, and apply for jobs.
The internship has improved Austin’s counseling skills, as “you deal with people from all walks of life,” she said. “Everyone is dealing with the stress of not having a job and it’s a tough time for all of them.”
In the fall, Austin will join the University at Albany’s counseling/psychology doctorate program. She credits Johnson with giving her the confidence needed to make the leap to graduate school.
“I mentioned to him that I wouldn’t apply to doctoral programs because I didn’t think I was qualified for them,” she recalled. “He said I was selling myself short. He required me to set higher standards for myself because he had the confidence in me. To have someone of his stature tell me that was all I needed. It truly meant the world to me.”
The first person from her family to attend college, Austin said faculty members such as Johnson and Wilton have played a major role in her success at Binghamton University.
“Binghamton has put me where I needed to be,” she said. “I can’t imagine what my experiences would have been elsewhere. The biggest part of that experience has been the support I’ve received from friends, faculty and programs such as McNair.”