Melanie Palacios Soderstrom
College:College of Community Innovation and Education
Degree Program:Criminal Justice PhD
Research Focus:Juvenile justice
After graduating from law school, while working in Virginia as a criminal defense attorney representing juveniles, Melanie Palacios Soderstrom witnessed firsthand the many injustices within the legal system. Though she had no influence over policymaking and reform efforts as an attorney, she observed how juvenile justice system practitioners advocated for programs and policies that did not work to reduce recidivism, keep the community safe, or treat drug addiction. No longer willing to stand on the sidelines, Soderstrom decided to shift course in her career.
“I was frustrated by the massive injustices happening every day in our local courts, the resistance to reform, and the general apathetic attitude of many working within the criminal justice system,” she says. Hoping to influence policymaking on a larger scale, Soderstrom decided to return to graduate school to earn a doctoral degree and engage in meaningful research that might contribute to improving youth outcomes.
Now, as a student in the Criminal Justice PhD program, Soderstrom is conducting research on policies and programs affecting the juvenile justice system. Her current research focuses on policing in schools, practitioner training, youth mental health, and juvenile justice decision-making. For her dissertation, she is examining the roles, training, and perceptions of school resource officers (SROs) in a Florida county’s recently expanded SRO Program while simultaneously investigating the SROs’ impact on the student outcomes of arrest and involuntary commitment apprehensions. Working with Criminal Justice professors Dr. Kristina Childs and Dr. Jennifer Peck on another project, she is analyzing Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data before and after the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act to assess the impact of new SRO mandates statewide. Soderstrom is also involved in federally funded research projects and various other research endeavors aside from her dissertation, working to better the justice system in a meaningful way.
Soderstrom first graduated from UCF in 2007 with her bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages with a minor in Political Science. After earning her law degree from the College of William & Mary School of Law in 2010, she returned to UCF for her master’s degree in Criminal Justice in 2016. The soon-to-be triple knight chose to continue her academic journey at UCF because the university’s Criminal Justice PhD program offers a juvenile justice concentration, which is rare in criminal justice or criminology graduate programs. The concentration allows her to enroll in more juvenile justice-focused courses than she would have been able to take in other programs, which have been instrumental in her studies.
Another part of her experience at the university Soderstrom appreciates is the faculty. She stresses how the juvenile justice professors in the Department of Criminal Justice, Dr. Kristina Childs, Dr. Jennifer Peck, and Dr. James Ray, have consistently supported her through the challenges and successes she has experienced during her graduate studies. “Not only are they all brilliant scholars, but they are also wonderful people who have gone the extra mile for me on too many occasions to count,” she says. Soderstrom also feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Kim Gryglewicz in the School of Social Work on several research projects and to have the expertise and guidance of Dr. Will Moreto from the Department of Criminal Justice on her dissertation committee. “The mentorship I’ve received and the plentiful research opportunities available have been instrumental to my success as a PhD student,” she says.
Aside from her studies, Soderstrom is highly involved in various pursuits at UCF. She currently serves as Vice President of the Criminal Justice Graduate Students Association, which has organized professional development workshops and helped her along her academic journey. In addition, she has received various awards for her work at UCF, including the Doctoral Research Support Award from the College of Graduate Studies. She has also had two research proposals selected for grant funding and would serve as principal investigator or co-principal investigator in the studies.
After graduating this August, Soderstrom will be starting a new position as a tenure track assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Texas State University. She looks forward to continuing her research and collaborating with criminal juvenile justice agencies, policymakers, and the education system to improve how these various institutions respond to young people.
- Vice President of the Criminal Justice Graduate Students Association
- Received the Doctoral Research Support Award from the College of Graduate Studies
- Had two research proposals selected for grant funding
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