Paralegal Alum Jessica Trejo: Owning Her Story
Right after her graduation from the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program in September, Jessica Trejo video-called her mom, who had been watching the ceremony online from California.
“She was crying, crying, crying. She showed her lap, and she had all these tissues. And she was like, ‘I’m so proud of you,’” Trejo recalls. “Hearing that from her, it was confirmation of everything that I worked hard for.”
Trejo was one of 12 people to graduate from the program and earn a certificate in Paralegal Studies from the Georgetown University Law Center in 2023. For Trejo, the accomplishment was even more meaningful because of how far she had come to make it to the graduation stage.
“I had so much shame and guilt from the crimes and the life that I was living that I didn’t feel worthy of having anything,” Trejo said. “Coming into PJI made me feel worthy of having a successful life.”
The MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program is specifically designed to train and empower aspiring paralegals who, like Trejo, have previously been incarcerated. Through six months of full-time classes in legal studies and professional development, graduates gain the skills for successful careers in the field of law.
A few weeks after graduation, Trejo started a full-time position as an Equal Opportunity Specialist at the D.C. Office of Human Rights. In her role, she investigates claims of discrimination in employment, housing, health systems, and educational institutions, speaking with both sides, collecting information and documentation, and preparing reports for case files.
It’s a major shift from the type of jobs she had just a few years ago.
“For the last maybe three years, I was living paycheck to paycheck. Struggling, just cutting it so close,” she said. “I think that without PJI, I wouldn’t feel the way I do, and I would still be stuck at a labor job, tired and working my butt off with nothing to show for it.”
In addition to the stability that her new position provides, Trejo enjoys doing investigative research, conducting interviews, and using everything she learned in the program to help get to the bottom of discrimination claims.
Finding a Career Fit
Trejo found out about the program on the same day that applications were due for the 2023 cohort. She didn’t know much about paralegal work, but she knew she had an interest in the law – not only because of her personal experience but also having seen family members and others in her community struggling to navigate the immigration system in the U.S.
“My first interest was wanting to help people that need help,” she said. “But I didn’t know what a paralegal was or that I could even be allowed to be in some type of legal field with my record.”
Trejo said going through the program and researching on her own, she realized that there are many professionals in the legal field who have previously been incarcerated.
“It opened my eyes to see that just because you’ve been incarcerated doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful,” she said.
Trejo began classes in April of 2023 at the Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI) and immediately took to the curriculum – even when it got challenging. She said that professors, like Faculty Director Suzanne Tsintolas, held the class to the same high standards as any other group of students. Being taken seriously in the classroom as Georgetown students and professionals made Trejo feel more confident and accepting of her own story.
“Sometimes I just want to forget that I was ever in jail, forget that was ever me, and forget that I changed my life. I just want to be this new me. But I think that returning citizens should revel in the fact that we’ve changed,” she said.
Knowing first-hand the barriers and discrimination that people with past convictions face, it’s rewarding for Trejo to be working somewhere like the Office of Human Rights. In her role, she’s learning more every day about equal opportunity, investigations, mediation, and more.
She is also continuing to pursue her passion for supporting immigrant communities and is working on a course to earn Department of Justice accreditation that will allow her to serve as a representative at hearings for undocumented immigrants, who do not have a right to legal counsel. Her other main goal is to buy her first home so that she and her daughter can move out of transitional housing.
Trejo said that with her experience in the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program, things that previously seemed out of reach – like becoming a professional paralegal and a homeowner – are within her grasp for the first time.
“PJI was definitely that beacon of light for me, and I’m just eternally grateful,” she said. “My paralegal certificate means everything to me.”
- Paralegal Program