In reaction to U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan’s “Dialogue at UVA: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students” on Feb. 10 and 11, the Women’s Center hopes to continue the discussion with its work.

Charlotte Chapman, LPC, Director of Counseling at the Women’s Center, attended the conference that brought together presidents from universities across the nation, sexual violence experts and U.Va. student leaders. Chapman, who has been in her position for eight years, believes the Women’s Center has already been helping address sexual misconduct since its inception 25 years ago by bringing awareness to this issue through the Sexual and Domestic Violence Services  (SDVS) program.

Chapman emphasized that the center’s partnerships across grounds are key factors in effectively tackling the issue, along with the focus that U.Va. places on student governance, which has enabled more input from the students.

“[The center’s] collaborations in counseling services with student health and the Dean of Students office has enabled us to offer services for students who have experienced sexual violence,” Chapman said. “In talking with other universities, some of them do not have this kind of cooperation between their women’s center, advocacy groups, students and their student health/DOS.”

Claire N. Kaplan, Ph.D., Director of SDVS at the Women’s Center since the fall of 1991, expected to hear insightful comments from the various university presidents, but noted that the highlight of the two-day conference was really hearing from the students.

“For me, the highlight was the collective voice of the students. They kept us all honest, and gave great advice to the presidents,” she said.

Fourth year student Emily Renda sat on the student panel as the chair of the Sexual Assault Leadership Council (SALC) at U.Va. Renda interned under SDVS during her second year. After being assaulted in her first year, Renda said she specifically sought out resources at the Women’s Center and later “felt that interning would be a great way to start advocating for the issue more effectively through programming.”

After her internship, she has remained connected to the Women’s Center through the years with her involvement in SALC. She hoped that after this conference, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Women’s Center, as well as community organizations, “[…could] promote an active and healthy conversation that extends beyond the violence itself and its aftermath.”

Renda emphasized what she would like the conversation to sound like.

“I want to see us push and challenge our expectations of gender, of partying, of the college atmosphere and really critically engage with them so that the conversation is on the side of before the act, and not after the fact,” she said.

Sandra Menendez, current SDVS intern at the Women’s Center, is a survivor of intimate partner violence. She too found support through the center in her first and second years and wanted to use her third year to “try to attempt to give them back just a small piece of what [the Women’s Center gave her].”

Menendez, also a volunteer at the recent conference, expressed what she has learned through her internship at the center following her personal experience.

“I’ve learned a lot about resilience–both personally and through working with others,” Menendez said. “[…] we are quick to jump at trying to piece together who is or is not at fault, and we tend to forget the immeasurable inner strength required by a survivor to start his/her life over again. I’ve learned to honor one’s humanity over politics, and I’ve realized that terrible things can sometimes be powerful teachers. We don’t get what we want in life, but rather, what we need.”

Current SDVS intern Nia Bentall more so became involved because she said she saw how “pervasive and wide spread the issue of sexual assault and rape culture is in universities.” Bentall also serves as co-chair for SALC, alongside Renda, as well as volunteered at the conference.

Bentall noted how her internship has given her the opportunity to face this issue in a productive manner by helping raise awareness and educating the public. Bentall recognizes, along with fourth year student and fellow SDVS intern, Megan McConnell how much bystander intervention training is needed on college campuses.

“The trauma and ripple effects are awful, and I was angry that [sexual assault] happened and angry at the response to it, both on institutional and interpersonal level,” Bentall said. “The SDVS program offers me a way to help be a part of a solution to a social problem, through educational programs based on raising awareness, promoting bystander intervention and learning about the policy problems universities face.”

The Women’s Center recognizes that sexual misconduct on college campuses is an ongoing topic that is not limited to this two-day dialogue. With its national-level attention from this conference at U.Va. and in President Barack Obama’s recent initiative, the topic continues to grow with more publicity.

Bentall believes the recent increase in media coverage is due to a culmination of events across the nation that cannot be ignored.

“This issue has gained national-level attention because of the amalgamation of efforts around the country just like the ones here at the U.Va. Women’s Center,” Bentall said. “In issues like this, local efforts, people talking to other people, really matters. Recent press attention on awful events like Steubenville, and global protests like the Slut Walks also play a part. This movement really has momentum. This is just my opinion, but I think the fact that Obama has daughters who will be going to college soon may play a part in his recent initiative.”

Please visit Iris Magazine for more articles relating to the conference.

Photo by Dan Addison

By Agnes Filipowski