ESU Student Studies Minds of Female Serial Killers for Senior Capstone

Valentina Otero

Posted by: Elizabeth Richardson on May 11, 2021, No Comments

Valentina Otero’s passion for her major goes deeper than assignments on a syllabus. To round out a robust course load, Otero, a senior criminal justice and psychology double major from East Stroudsburg, Pa., pursued an independent study capstone project focused on exploring the minds of female serial killers. Carrie Maloney, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice, was her advisor. Otero has long been interested in the human psyche. “I took a general psych class in high school, and I found it really interesting. And many family members suffered with mental illness throughout their lives, and I wanted to learn about how mental illness affects people,” she explains. “Through my education, I’ve gotten a better understanding of the questions I’ve had.” She added criminal justice as her second major during her first year at ESU and is particularly interested in working with offenders. “At first, I was interested in assisting with police investigations, but now I’m leaning more toward helping offenders adjust to re-entering society. I’m kind of thinking of getting my master’s degree, but first I’d like to get more professional experience. COVID limited my field experience opportunities,” she explains.

COVID didn’t just limit her field experience opportunities. From virtual learning to mandatory shutdowns and disrupting daily routines, Otero was surprised by how much COVID touched her life. “I didn’t think it would affect me as much as it did,” she admits. “I like to be home, and I was already commuting, so I didn’t think I’d miss that much. But being inside all the time was maddening. The routine I had to stay motivated was suddenly gone.” Then in November 2020, Otero’s parents contracted the virus. Otero describes herself as a “second mother” to her younger siblings and took on more responsibility. She cared for her sick parents, then fell ill herself a few weeks later. “It was very difficult for me to stay on track with my work. There were times when I missed class because I felt so sick. It affected my self-esteem—I’m a hard worker, and it’s not like me to miss. I’m glad now that I’m getting caught up. I feel like I’m in a time crunch, and I appreciate everything professors have done to make this an easier experience,” she says.

Otero pushed through the challenges and continued working with Dr. Maloney. They worked out a flexible syllabus and meeting schedule, and Otero chose to complete a 10-page research paper comparing the psychology of male and female serial killers. Otero says the independent study was rewarding on many levels. “It was beneficial in that it taught me to pace myself—don’t leave everything to the last minute. Every week, I would be determined to get something done, but I also learned to communicate with Dr. Maloney. The meetings have been very enriching. I would say they helped me with my critical thinking skills and to look at things from different perspectives.” With graduation approaching, Otero is still exploring her options. She hasn’t ruled out graduate school, but she is also weighing a few job offers. “I’m not sure what I’m going to take yet,” she says.

Otero was a student in Maloney’s senior seminar course “The Untold Stories of Capital Punishment”. It focuses on the various individuals directly impacted but often overlooked by society and/or the criminal justice system, such as death row corrections officers, jury members, and victim and offender families. “Valentina really wanted to get into the psychology,” Maloney says, adding she offered a “fresh perspective. Her research focused on ‘how do death row corrections officers cope with the fact that this person will be put to death?’ ‘Do the CO’s get support?’ ‘What are their coping mechanisms?’ ‘Are some able to compartmentalize?’ ‘Do others just leave the field and never come back?’” Otero then approached Maloney about being her capstone project advisor. “Sometimes a faculty member is chosen because of their expertise in the field, or the student feels a closeness to the faculty member,” Maloney explains. “[Valentina] really wanted to explore the psych of female serial killers and how they’re so different from males. She would read outside sources when they weren’t required—she just wants to know more about it. I let her take the ball and run with it,” she says. “I’m not an expert in serial killers and mass murders, so the teacher became the student. Meeting with her has been the highlight of my week. In what has been an overwhelmingly difficult year, it’s kept me going in many ways.” Maloney adds, “She is a good example of a double major. She sees how things fit together, and it can improve your understanding of both fields. I see her doing it really well. Her inquisitiveness is refreshing.”