Jessica Hastings is much more than meets the eye.  She is an articulate, vibrant and intelligent woman with a back story that completely belies where she is today.  Jessica is a past Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust awardee and is also a KEECT Selection Panelist.  She gained a BA in Criminology in 2018, and is passionate about reform and equity in the Criminal Justice System.  Jess has since worked on a number of related projects as well as volunteering for a drug and alcohol support service.

Jessica Hastings

What is most remarkable about Jess is that her passion and drive to work in these areas stems from her own personal experiences with mental health, drug addiction and incarceration – not something you would ever consider when you first meet her.

Jess tells of an idyllic childhood with a keen love of learning but going off the rails in her mid-teens, failing School Certificate and making the decision to leave school at 15 because ‘education was boring and not for her’.  The next 10 years spiraled into a black hole of drugs and alcohol, an eating disorder, addiction, and ultimately crime.  At the age of 26 she was sentenced to 2 years and 9 months in prison for supplying methamphetamine.

6 months into her sentence, finally clean and sober for the first time in 10 years, she started taking courses – bible studies, barista training, arts and crafts, life skills…. small steps but she soon began to recognize her old self again, and her love of learning was rekindled.

On her release, adjusting to life on the outside was overwhelming.  Although clean from drugs and alcohol, she was suffering a major anxiety disorder, and with no real work experience or education, was at a loss with where to start rebuilding her life.  But the world works in mysterious ways and a chance encounter with a brochure stand at a church where she’d gone to vote, led her to New Start, a preparation and bridging programme at the University of Auckland that “welcomes everyone with the potential and drive to succeed” recognizing that “many capable people don’t do very well at school”.  Finding this opportunity opened the door for the next chapter of her life – tertiary education.

Starting the course was tough as she worried that she wasn’t smart enough to study or that people would judge her for her past, but she persevered and not only completed the course with excellent grades that gained her university entrance, but she also won the Top of The Class award for her year.  As it later turned out, this was the first of many Top of the Class awards that she would receive throughout her university studies.

Despite her achievement of completing the New Start course, Jess felt overwhelmed by the whole studying process and didn’t want to start a degree.  However, with her family’s support and encouragement, along with the KEECT financial Award, she decided to give it a go.  Jess says that the financial support given by the Trust helped enormously throughout her degree, and enabled her to study at a pace she was comfortable with while she adjusted to life on the outside and keeping her goals on track.

Jess says that completing her degree in Education and Criminology and realising her potential, came as a big shock to her.  But to anyone who had followed her journey, this achievement was testament to her courage, strength and resilience to push herself to be the best that she could.

She has since been able to pursue her passion and dream of working toward creating better outcomes for people within the criminal justice system, including curating the Just Speak/Korero Pono multi-media exhibition, which gave voice to the personal experiences of those who have experienced prison, and working as a researcher on the AUT project He Ture Kia Tika/Let the Law be Right, which aims to develop a solution-focused framework to improve outcomes for whānau who experience mental distress and/or addictions while in the criminal justice system.  She is now bringing valuable insight and empathy to her current role with Specialist Reports, writing cultural reports for people on remand and bail to assist the Court to make decisions affecting outcomes in sentencing, focusing on the importance of having all information about a person’s backstory before the presiding Judge.

Education has played a big role in Jess’s transformation and she is a shining example that it is never too late to make a change, start again or pick up where you left off.  Jess’s advice to other women in her situation is to follow your dreams and passions, and to be inspired by others doing the same – anything is possible with the right support and when you put your mind to it.