Near the university’s new arena is one of Jessica Vedrani’s favorite buildings on campus.
It’s a former pharmaceutical office turned into an educational crime lab, and it’s about the size of a small house. But it’s a place where she learned the practical side of her future, from stopping a theoretical suspect to inspecting shoe prints on the ground.
Vedrani, a junior double majoring in political science and criminal justice, wants to become a family lawyer. And she sees HPU’s crime laboratory as a way for her to understand how to help people who need help.
Vedrani is one of two Extraordinary Leaders for the month of March. She’s a Presidential Scholar, a member of the university’s Honors Scholar Program and an HPU nominee for the coveted Truman Scholarship.
She is no stranger to stepping up. She’s also no stranger to stepping out.
Like going to Washington, D.C., for two weeks right after her freshman year.
That changed her life.
HPU’s Valuable Connections
Vedrani enrolled in a Maymester course called “Power and Politics.” She joined six upperclassmen, and they spent two weeks in D.C. with Drs. Martin Kifer and Brandon Lenoir. She was one of two freshmen on the trip.
They visited various offices, talked with HPU alumni working on Capitol Hill and participated in more than a dozen small group meetings with people who make Washington their professional home.
One of those people was Kristen Soltis Anderson. She’s a Republican pollster, political commentator and author of “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up).”
Vedrani read Anderson’s book, and in a meeting with HPU students older than her, she took the lead in asking questions.
That impressed Kifer.
She later met Ameer Patel, an HPU alumnus working for the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign. She kept in touch with him through email, and a few months later, she asked about internship opportunities.
Patel helped her find those opportunities. Vedrani applied, went through two rounds of interviews and became the nonprofit’s data and operations fellow.
That impressed Kifer, too.
He taped Vedrani’s picture on his office filing cabinet because he wanted students who came to see him to hear Vedrani’s story. Kifer also brought it up because he wanted students to see how one chance encounter can lead to something big.
“It’s precisely what we want students to do,” says Kifer, chair of HPU’s political science department. “We want students to seize on these opportunities. With the Maymester course, we want to introduce students to a new world where they can see that all this talk about ‘Let’s catch up over a cup of coffee,’ is real.
“That’s the culture of D.C., and the people they meet are generous with their own time because someone did that same thing for them. So, students don’t need to be intimidated. They can take advantage of these opportunities. Jessica did.”
At HPU, Vedrani learned the importance of networking.
In D.C., she also learned the importance of paying attention.
Discovering A New World
During her internship the summer of 2019 with the Climate Action Campaign, Vedrani ran into the Prime Minister of Mongolia and struck up a conversation with Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, on the Metro, the city’s subway.
At her internship, she helped create an index that ranked how a legislator’s record affected the climate.
At her intern housing in a three-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill, she lived with seven other young women from across the country. They were all college students, all interns, all working in the world of D.C.
Vedrani loved it.
“At first, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just an intern, that’s not important,’” Vedrani says. “But when I talked to the other girls I was living with, they said, ‘Your internship is really cool. You’re getting more hands-on experience than we are.’
“And that helped me recognize my value and realize everyone in Washington, D.C., has an important role. It gave me a sense of purpose.”
Vedrani did find purpose at HPU.
She’s the treasurer of the Student Government Association, and as a member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority, she became the vice president of philanthropy for the National Panhellenic Council.
She’s also a Student Justice and a University Ambassador who takes families and prospective students on tours across campus.
When she does, she tells them about HPU’s small classes, its helpful professors and places like the crime lab, the classroom of Dr. Robert Little, chair of the university’s criminal justice department.
Then, she talks about opportunity.
Vedrani is the only child of Bob and Lynne Vedrani. They didn’t go to college.
Her mom is a bank teller; her dad is a quality inspector for a medical supply company; and she was raised 45 miles northeast of Boston in the small coastal city of Salisbury, Massachusetts.
In that city of nearly 9,000 people, Vedrani realized she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.
It’s because of her own heartache. It’s because of her Uncle Mark.
The Tough Education of Heartache
When she was much younger, Vedrani saw the joy in Uncle Mark.
He played guitar, sang songs and took pride in staying healthy and working out. He was a bodybuilder. His life, though, took a dark turn when he lost his job and he lost his daughter in a custody battle.
He became addicted to drugs, alcohol and opioids, and he lashed out or withdrew from everyone who loved him. By the time Vedrani turned 17, her uncle became a casualty of the country’s opioid epidemic. He overdosed and died. Uncle Mark was 52.
“His death made me realize life is short, and people can be taken from us at any moment,” Vedrani says. “Today, I often regret not reaching out and talking to him about how I felt and how his addiction affected me and my family.
“I wish I was able to say, ‘I love you’ one last time.’”
Uncle Mark never got the help he needed even when he was arrested twice for driving while impaired. He was released and returned to his destructive habits. Vedrani believes an intervention of some sort could have saved his life.
Her education at HPU backs that up.
Vedrani’s Next Step
Through her coursework and research with Dr. Thomas Dearden, an HPU criminal justice professor, Vedrani found that seven out of every 10 inmates return to jail if they don’t get the help they need.
She discovered that when she was working with Dearden in HPU’s Honors course, “Approaches to the Justice System.” She, her classmates, and Dearden were helping the High Point Jail Ministry find programs that would reduce the number of repeat offenders ending up behind bars.
Her work in Dearden’s course earned her and 11 of her classmates the best group research award in April 2018 during HPU’s competition known as High-PURCS.
That academic epiphany convinced Vedrani to believe in the idea of restorative justice.
As a Student Justice, a position she’s held since the spring semester of her freshman year, Vedrani put that belief into practice.
“It’s a lot more than seeing a person’s name and a charge on a piece of paper,” Vedrani says. “I want anyone who comes in front of us to know that it’s not about punishment. It’s the whole experience of learning from the mistakes they made.”
She wants to go to law school and specialize in family law. Her experience as a Student Justice convinced her of that. So did the death of her Uncle Mark.
“I’ve certainly been there, but I’m not just in it for a career,” she says. “I’m in it because I want to make a difference. I want to be helpful.”
“Your Spark Is Back”
HPU has helped prepare Vedrani for law school.
She’s worked at the university’s crime lab, participated in Research Rookies and worked with fellow HPU student Kirby Hutcheson on a project where they looked into how Google can make someone into a criminal.
In March 2019, they went to Baltimore and presented their research at the American Criminal Justice Society Conference.
Those opportunities — in Baltimore, in Washington and on the HPU campus — have changed her.
Her mom has noticed.
“It was the first Family Weekend when my parents came to visit,” Vedrani says. “It was the first time they had seen me bubbly in a while, and she said, ‘Your spark is back.’ That’s what she said, and I think it was because of all the positivity that surrounded me on campus.
“I reflected on that for a moment or two, and I told her, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”