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As a teenager, Jessica Christensen was not permitted to pursue her education beyond the eighth grade. As she shares in her powerful 2015 Scholars of Change video, she was expected to marry her 42-year-old uncle at age 14, as his third wife.
Today could not be more different for Christensen. She is currently pursuing her Master of Social Work (MSW) at Walden University and working to help others who want to leave a polygamist community in Salt Lake City, Utah, find safe passage and adapt to their new lives. She’s taken an admirable path: to use her past as a motivation to help others.
“When I left at 15, I went to school and I was testing at a college level, but then found my social skills were significantly behind,” she explains. “But I also discovered gaps in my education. In science, for example, I had to be able to explain to teachers that I simply never learned about evolution. Understanding people’s development and how they process a crisis situation is so valuable.”
As a married mother of two, she’s pursing her MSW so she can ultimately continue to help others. One of the most influential skills she’s learned, she explains, is mastering the use of motivational interviewing skills, which she uses in her work on A&E TV show Escaping Polygamy. “I help people focus on what they want,” she explains, “And then help them identify resources that can help them meet their goals as they make decisions, and empower them to plan a new future for themselves.”
The show isn’t simply about the “escape.” It’s about helping people rebuild their lives. Christensen helps individuals find work and build a social network, which involves making friends, and, when they’re ready, seeing a psychologist. A course on human behavior was enlightening, she says. Learning to pinpoint where clients are mentally and emotionally, and where they should or could be, helps her coach the people she assists as they transition out of polygamy.
When she completes her MSW, she plans to begin a new professional chapter. “I want to go into social work to help people who are experiencing medical traumas, where they, too, are accepting a new reality.”
Her education likely doesn’t end there: “I plan to earn my PhD. I have a craving for knowledge. There’s so much to learn about human and social behavior. I hope to empower women across the globe who are oppressed by patriarchalism, which is very pronounced in polygamist communities. I would like to help women find worth outside of historical roles and be empowered to pursue their dreams.” —Claire Blome