Young Alumni Award Winner Spotlight: Jessica Kingston

January 26, 2023 - Shelly DeJong

Jessica Kingston headshotJessica Kingston, an MSU Psychology and MSU School of Criminal Justice alumna, won the College of Social Science’s Young Alumni Award this fall. We sat down with her to hear about her work as a Detroit-based employment attorney, how psychology impacts her work today, and how she works to connect MSU alumni.

Can you tell me what it means to you to win the Young Alumni Award?  

I have spent a lot of time with Michigan State since graduating, both through Detroit Spartans, the local alumni group, and the College of Social Science. I didn't have a lot of money to give after law school, but I could give my time. It feels really nice to be recognized now years later for that time. As a student, I was just like everyone else going to my classes and living my life. It's surprising to think that 15 years later, the university would recognize me that way. It just feels really good. 

As an undergrad you were very involved, though—the list of your involvements was quite long!  

That's just kind of my nature. In high school, I was very involved. I carried a planner with me all the time. When I went to undergrad, I decided to just focus on my classes and not get involved in things. That first semester, I didn't join any groups and I earned a 2.5 GPA that semester. I was a 4.0 student in high school! It made me realize that just going to class is not how I operate. I need to be involved. I need to be busy all the time. It helps me get things done. 

Did you come to MSU knowing that you wanted to do psychology and criminal justice? 

I came to MSU thinking I was going to be a math teacher. After my first semester, I reevaluated my classes and took things that sounded interesting to me. I realized that I was consistently excited to go to an 8 AM Criminal Justice introductory class even when it was cold and dark outside. I looked at what I could pair with a Criminal Justice major and realized that Psychology would fit well with it. My thought was, ‘I don't want to just learn about crimes and what we're doing about them, I want to understand the way people think and why they do the crimes.’ Criminal Justice looks more at the systems we have in place, but Psychology looks at it with a different aspect. They're very different but they met different parts of me. I like to follow the rules, and I’m very logical, which fits well with the Criminal Justice side. But Psychology allows you to see contours around things.  

How do you see psychology impacting your work now as an employment attorney? 

There are two aspects to my work as an employment attorney: litigation and preemptive work. Litigation is if a matter gets to the level of involving the courts. Preemptive work happens before we get to that point. How can we counsel businesses to make policies so that bad things don’t happen?  Psychology plays a big role in helping me understand why people do what they do, why they react the way they do, etc. For example, a business can't do anything about a problem unless they know about it. So how do we encourage employees to come forward with problems? And that's where psychology comes into play. Words on a page can't do anything. People must take those words and put them into action. So how do we encourage employees to act on these policies? 

We look at it from a legal perspective, but many companies also want to make their environment something that their employees want to be in. So, we help to see what best practices are according to the law and for the employees’ welfare.  

When did you decide to go to law school and then when and how did you decide on employment law? 

Through the Honors College Professor Assistantship program, I was paired with Dr. Christopher Smith. He was doing research regarding Justice John Paul Stevens’ decisions in criminal matters. He tasked me with reading Supreme Court opinions and summarizing them for him. And I liked it. I was doing lots and lots of reading and I really enjoyed the process. Dr. Smith encouraged me to go to law school. I worked with him to develop a list of law schools to apply to and ultimately decided on the University of Michigan. 

I started out doing business litigation, but eventually, through my career, I ended up doing some employment work and I found that I really enjoyed working on these types of matters, as opposed to arguing about disputes about money. These cases typically involve some event that happened in the workplace and I’m able to help see 1) what really happened and 2) what can we do about it. 

If you could travel back in time and give yourself some advice as a student, what would it be? 

Take the time to put on snow boots, put on a hat and gloves, and go to the events on campus because you're never going to have those opportunities again.  

You mentioned how you have been super involved with the Detroit Spartans. Can you tell me why that's important to you?  

I joined the Detroit Spartans soon after I got out of law school because they had events that interested me. For example, I went on a bar crawl in downtown Detroit in the middle of the winter. We bundled up as we do in East Lansing going from bar to bar in downtown Detroit with a bunch of other Spartans. I went with one friend and made a ton of new friends that night. I decided to officially join the board a couple years later when I had a little bit more free time.  

I enjoy the people really, it's all there is to it. It's a good group of people with whom we have this shared experience, even though we didn't know each other when we were in school. When you meet a fellow Spartan, there's a connection that you have and a shared experience that you're able to bond over. So, it makes meeting new people just a little bit easier when you have that initial connection.  

Also, I think the University did a lot to help get me to where I am today. As someone who likes to get back, I’m happy to do that with my time.