After completing a year of law school in her home country of Montenegro (the former Yugoslavia), Sanja Chastain moved to New York and in 2011 earned an associate degree in criminal justice from BMCC.
Next, she transferred to John Jay College and completed a dual baccalaureate/master’s program in forensic psychology in 2013.
“Only 29 of us were accepted,” she says of her accelerated studies at John Jay. “It’s a really tough program. You must maintain a 3.5 GPA. We all made it, though. If you struggle with certain classes, the professors are available, and you can participate in study groups.”
One professor who made a strong impression on her was Mindi Wapner, who acquainted students with an STU, or Special Treatment Unit for sexual offenders in New Jersey.
“Even if they finish their sentence, they remain locked up in a treatment center,” Chastain explains. “A panel of two to three psychologists argue if they are ready to release the person into the community or not.”
Someday, she intends to be part of such a panel.
“It’s not an easy thing,” she says. “Someone’s liberty, their life is at stake—and not only that person, but a whole family is affected.”
Forensic psychology “examines the gray area between criminal justice and psychology,” and is good experience, Chastain says, for her "dream job," which is being a criminal court judge.
“A forensic psychologist evaluates a person, someone who commits a crime, and if they suffer from a mental disorder, you argue that they can’t go through the same legal process as someone who isn’t ill," she says. "You recommend treatment, alternative sentencing.”
On the other hand, she says, “if you find that the person doesn’t have a mental disorder, you have to be ethical in your decision. It doesn’t matter if we’re hired by the prosecution or the defense or the court itself; we have to stay objective.”
To stay current on case outcomes related to those of the offenders she will evaluate, she follows Supreme Court rulings carefully.
Also, she says, “Having the law school background will distinguish me from other forensic psychologists. It’s my passion. I love teamwork, but I like creating something by myself, challenging myself, building a case for each decision.”
First, though, she is returning to Montenegro to finish law school, which she had began before moving to the United States and starting over with her college career.
Then, after completing law school in her home country, she’ll fly back to New York, and enter law school again. She’s considering Cardozo, NYU or Columbia, and transferring credits will shorten her time earning an LL.M. (Master of Laws) degree before taking the New York State bar exam.
Complicated as this all sounds, she says, her plan is the most efficient, most economical way to reach her goals.
Starting over, in English
Sanja Chastain grew up speaking Serbo-Croatian, language of the former Yugoslavia, and lived in the capital city of Podgorica (also known as Titograd).
“We studied English in elementary and high school, then I had English in college, but I learned most of my English when I came to the United States,” she says.
She enrolled in a Learning Across America intensive English-language class through the continuing education department at BMCC, when she first arrived.
“One professor, Margaret O’Connor, was extremely helpful,” she says.
“She was very patient with us. Our class met for six hours straight, speaking and writing English. It was hard, to focus for that long on English, and I was surprised that out of a class of non-English speakers, I was the only one from a foreign country. All the others grew up in New York.”
To engage with English as much as possible, she also watched TV with closed captions, “and I always had five dictionaries around me, and stickers everywhere; labels in English on my wall, my door, on everything around the apartment—plus I always try to have a book on me,” she says, pulling a hefty biography of Albert Einstein from her shoulder bag.
Does she miss Montenegro, a country the size of Connecticut, renown for its mountains and beaches, but also known for its historically volatile cultural mix of Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosnians and others?
“I have been in New York 11 years now, and I’ve learned how to be a New Yorker,” Chastain says.
“Montenegro is an old-fashioned society, and things are different today, as compared to 15 years ago, but it’s not like New York. My parents were the exception in that they encouraged me to be educated; my mom was an economist with the government, and my father was in military, a very educated man. They encouraged me to become educated, too.”
‘Once you’re in the water, you have to swim’
In addition to her studies at John Jay College, Sanja Chastain completed 400 hours of unpaid internships at RTI International, a nonprofit organization that provides study and analysis in areas including education and social policy.
“We worked with people who are mentally ill; alcohol or drug abusers,” she says. “We administered a questionnaire to them, and interviewed them. These are people who have been convicted for substance abuse-related offenses, and are sentenced to alternative treatment facilities.”
It should be noted that while completing her internship, her associate degree and dual bachelor’s and master degree program, she worked full time in an Italian restaurant in the West Village of Manhattan.
“I studied in the subway, on the bench in the hallway outside my classes, between shifts, any chance I got,” she says, and adds that she even found time for one short vacation.
“I took a 10-day road trip with some friends,” she says, and describes their adventures winding through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. “We saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, the White Sands Desert, Monument Valley.”
She looks forward to completing her academic journey, then making a permanent home in New York City.
“We have an expression,” she says, “‘Once you are in the water, you have to swim’.”
In New York, she adds, it is easier to “swim” because “even if you are a foreigner and your English is not perfect, you are still given an opportunity. It’s a great thing.”