As Staff Members In Higher Education, It's Our Job To Help Students Heal

Twenty some years ago I was an undergraduate at John Carroll University and was a work-study student in the Dean of Students office. Daily, I would see Dean Joe Farrell invite students in to his office to deal with issues that faced them as they were undergraduates. I never knew what happened behind those closed doors, but I knew students came out of Dean Farrell's office with a different attitude, a happier one, than the one with which they entered. I saw how Dean Farrell affected students. It was in those years I learned I wanted to be a Dean of Students.

Fast forward twenty years and I have my dream job as the Dean of Students at the University of North Texas. I have seen so many different student issues I could write a book about them, and many readers would believe the book was fiction due to the level of severity of issues our students face. I was so naïve to the possibility that an act of violence so intimate could ever face our college-aged students. Sexual assault was given the face of a stranger, hiding in the bushes awaiting his next victim in the shadows as a woman walked in an empty parking lot. Sexual assault was never the face of a fellow student in biology class, a suitemate in the residence halls, or a male who is struggling with an eating disorder... until now.

In my professional career in Student Affairs, I have seen many survivors of sexual assault: men and women; gay, lesbian, straight, and transgender; black, white, Hispanic, and Asian; rich, poor and middle class. I have sat across the table from survivors who were so scared to take any step to disclose what occurred in fear of retaliation, or who blamed her/himself due to drinking, short skirts, or flirting behavior.

When I began my career sexual assault was a taboo topic. It was seldom any training was done to teach Resident Assistants how to help a survivor of sexual assault. Trigger warnings were never part of our vernacular. Many times you would see a "0" in many institutions' Annual Security Reports. In my immature mind, the zeros were a good thing, which meant sexual assaults did not occur on our campuses.

Wow, was I wrong.

Since becoming a Dean, the education I have received on sexual assault on college campuses has been massive. In my early forties I learn every day about assisting survivors, developing avenues to educate our community such as Take Back the Night and evaluating prevention and outreach efforts regarding sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Over the past five years, mostly due to the strength, courage, and determination of many survivors, sexual assault on college campuses has been on the front page of newspapers, streaming on social media and the top story of many nightly news programs. We have seen sex offense numbers increase on Clery reports nationwide due to education of the community on their role to report, as well as educating our community about where to go for help. We have witnessed Congress getting involved and proposing legislation to tackle the issue, and we have seen survivors speak out and develop a momentum that cannot be ignored. We must do something. We must do the right thing.

I have sat across the table from survivors of sexual assault who were so lost, broken and crying so hard they could not speak. I have seen the sadness and anger in their parents' eyes as the survivor has told me their story. I have seen survivors work with resources on and off campus and over time, I have seen survivors begin to heal. In our role as staff members in higher education, it is our job to educate. It is our job to assist and help our students grow. It is also becoming our job to help our students heal. Our impact is much greater than retention rates. Our impact is helping survivors for the rest of their lives.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated byRAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.