A Calling Made Clear in the Capital

From her hometown of Lake Station, Indiana, to the halls of Valparaiso University, to the bustling streets of Washington D.C., Kayla Smith’s ’24 journey is one of discovery, resilience, and unwavering commitment to her dreams. “I’ve always wanted to help people who are in need, so I thought criminal justice would be the perfect route. In high school, I decided to attend a course for criminal justice at the Hammond Area Career Center. After that experience, I knew that I wanted to pursue criminology because I wanted to dive deeper into why crime is being committed. When I was looking at colleges, I saw that Valpo had a criminology concentration which was a huge deciding factor in transferring to Valpo. Now, I’m a double major in psychology and sociology with a concentration in criminology,” she says.

Kayla Smith sitting under the Valpo victory bell

As a transfer student, Kayla navigated the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic with grace, seamlessly transitioning from Ball State University to Valpo with the help of Valpo’s amazing faculty and staff supporting her every step of the way. “Since I was [an] online [student] with Ball State, I wasn’t able to connect with the professors like I’m able to in person, especially at Valpo. Compared to a bigger university like Ball State where you’re often seen as just a number, at Valpo you get that one-on-one experience with the professors,” she shares.

Unlike her past experience, where she felt disconnected in an online environment, Valpo offered Kayla something powerful — community. “As for the people that I’ve met throughout my journey, I would say Professors Danielle Lavin-Loucks, Ph.D., Dawn Bartusch ‘87, Ph.D., and Holly Cross ‘14, Ph.D., have all given me such great guidance and support. Valpo truly has incredible faculty with dedication and expertise. They have shaped my journey of not just academic growth, but personal development as well,“ Kayla says.

Through Valpo’s sociology and psychology programs, Kayla delved deep into her passion for understanding the intricacies of crime and justice. Her journey wasn’t just confined to the classroom; she immersed herself in hands-on experiences like the Inside Out Prison Exchange program, where she engaged with incarcerated individuals, gaining invaluable insights into the criminal justice system.

“What truly inspired me to enroll in the Inside Out Program was the opportunity to engage in conversations about social changes through transformative education and address the significant challenges confronting our criminal justice system. One significant challenge is how so many people who are incarcerated are victims in their own lives and have been lost within the criminal justice system. Almost all of the people who were incarcerated were victims at one point, either of family violence, abuse, or just witnessing their own family members being incarcerated. Being able to connect with such great people who are incarcerated opened my eyes to the fact that anybody could be incarcerated and at the end of the day, we’re all people. We’re all human in this world and we all make mistakes. Many of these individuals are genuinely compassionate and possess open minds, driven by a desire to learn, grow, and ultimately make positive changes in their lives. So, that’s something I really took away from that class, and I want to spread more awareness of the problems so we can make a positive change within our criminal justice system.”

Kayla Smith '24 smiling and posing next to a sign that reads "AMERICAN PYSCHOLOGY-LAW SOCIETY ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2023."

Through her involvement in the applied forensic psychology lab and participation in research symposiums, Kayla has honed her skills and expanded her understanding of the intersection between psychology and criminal justice. Each experience, whether it was presenting research or engaging in discussions with her peers, has helped shape her aspirations and fuel her desire to make a positive impact on the world.

Artwork by Kayla Smith ’24
Artwork by Kayla Smith’s ’24

“Going to a Lutheran church during my childhood, the values have continued to be a fundamental aspect in my life by remaining faithful and hopeful. During the Inside Out Program, I did a painting for one of my projects and I described it as giving hope to others when they don’t have it within them. The message behind the painting was meant as a reminder to people that if they feel like they’re going to let go, to always hold on. I love how Valpo has that same hope within our community. We recognize the strength that comes from being connected. I really appreciate that,” Kayla shares.

Inspired by this belief and full of aspirations to work for the federal government, particularly for the FBI, Kayla embarked on an unforgettable journey to Washington, D.C., through the Lutheran College Washington Semester (LCWS) program. Of the many opportunities afforded through Valpo, Kayla’s participation in LCWS, at the encouragement of Professor Loucks, has had the greatest impact on her professional journey so far. “I first heard about the LCWS program my sophomore year when Professor Loucks brought in Professor James Old, Ph.D., as a guest speaker to talk about the program. They mentioned I would be able to get a federal government position and get such a great professional network doing this program. So, that’s how I got connected. I applied to the LCWS program for this spring semester, and it has been so amazing,“ she says.

Kayla Smith '24 smiling in front of a larger-than-life bronze sculpture, titled "Frontier Marshal" inside the United States Marshals Service headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia.

In the nation’s capital, Kayla’s dreams began to take shape as she interned with the United States Marshals Service, delving into the complexities of asset forfeiture and cryptocurrency. The experience was not only professionally enriching but personally transformative, as Kayla immersed herself in the vibrant culture and rich history of D.C. “I get to do hands-on work within the complex assets unit. I’m just so grateful that I’ve been able to have this experience. For one thing, I love living in D.C. The art, architecture, diversity, and history of our nation’s capital are amazing. Not to mention, I’ve built such a great professional network and have gotten to immerse myself in the professional environments that I want to be in long-term,” she says. 

While in D.C., Kayla seized every opportunity to connect with Valpo alumni, eager to glean insights and guidance from those who have walked the path before her. Learning of the Valpo in D.C. Student-Alumni Coffee Hour event, Kayla made plans to attend. “The whole event was amazing. I got to speak with several alumni and they gave me such great guidance and advice. I connected with one alum, Matthew Cook [‘10, MBA, MPP], who provided invaluable insights into various programs and offered guidance as I approach graduation. Then, Adrienne Rodriguez-Aranda [‘02] sent me information about different events held in D.C. for different speeches that were happening in the D.C. area as well as so many job opportunities I might be interested in. I love how she was willing to take time out of her day to send me those things because she remembers the conversation that we had. She said to always keep in touch with her and that she has a friend who lives in Indiana working within the criminal justice system that she plans to connect me with as well. Another alum, Robert Ordway [‘07, ‘10 M.S.], who works in the United States Senate, grew up in the same area as I did, and his sister was actually my volleyball coach during high school — what a small world. It is truly special to see how supportive Valpo alumni are and how there are so many people within the D.C. area with open arms if you need any help or assistance. I really appreciate having such an extensive professional network with the Valpo alumni, especially as a graduating senior,” she shares.

Kayla Smith '24 smiling in front of the interior entrance to the United States Senate.

Their support and encouragement reaffirmed Kayla’s belief in the power of community and mentorship, inspiring her to pay it forward and make a difference in the lives of others. “One of my main goals after I’m done with my career experiences is to hopefully write a book one day and teach other people about what I’ve learned. It’s concerning that many individuals overlook the underlying factors that explain why crime is committed. It’s important to bring awareness to these issues within the criminal justice system and society as a whole. By shedding light on these challenges, we can work towards leaving a positive impact and creating meaningful change,” she shares.

In the midst of job hunting and career aspirations, Kayla still finds time to give back. Whether it’s through mentoring fellow students or participating in alumni networking events, she’s always eager to lend her light and a helping hand. Her infectious optimism and genuine desire to make a difference leave a lasting impression on everyone she meets.

As Kayla continues to delve into her academic pursuits, it becomes clearer that her double majors in sociology and psychology are more than just fields of study — they’re her calling. Reflecting on her journey, Kayla shares this final piece of advice: never give up, always be yourself, and relentlessly pursue your dreams. As she stands on the precipice of a new chapter, Kayla is ready to embark on the next phase of her journey, armed with the knowledge, experience, and an indomitable spirit that has carried her so far. With her eyes set on the future and her heart filled with boundless optimism, Kayla is poised to leave an indelible mark on the world, and we are so proud to call her one of our very own Beacons.

Kayla Smith '24 smiling in front of a government building in Washington, D.C.