An open letter to the University of Vermont
Dear University of Vermont,
Oh, where do I even begin? I was enamored with you the moment I set my eyes on you. A bustling campus full of beauty situated right on Lake Champlain. What could be better? At only 17 years old, I knew I wanted to call you home for the next chunk of my life. I remember exactly where I was when I got the email: “You’ve been accepted to the University of Vermont!”. You became my safe haven, a fresh start, a breath of fresh air.
Senior year flew by and soon enough I was moving into Harris Millis and exploring Burlington. I was excited about going to class, I quickly found friends I got along with instantly; my life felt like sunshine. I remember going home for a weekend and missing my friends and campus so much it was almost all I thought about. Of course, being only 18 at the time, this was my first real taste of freedom. I could eat when I wanted, go to bed when I wanted, come and go as I pleased. Those first few months truly felt like a dream. Unfortunately, this is where our love story took a dramatic turn.
I was sexually assaulted on November 30th in an on campus apartment building. I eventually put together what had happened the next day. Suddenly my safe haven became a place I felt on edge, somewhere I was constantly holding my breath. Where does an 18 year old turn when something so horrible happens to her and she has no resources? Her friends.
I quickly learned how many people I knew had already had similar experiences. We relied on each other to get resources, to try to understand what had happened to us, what our options were. This information was so incredibly difficult to find though your website, and even more difficult to understand once we did find it. In one of my worst moments, I was sitting there trying to navigate and understand your Title IX website. I was already enveloped in a cloud of emotions, and it was only made worse by trying to seek help and resources from you.
Let’s rewind a bit.
During orientation I remember being crammed into one of your beautiful buildings, the Ira Allen Chapel, for what I later found out was your consent education training. It felt like it was a million degrees in there, I remember not even knowing why we were in there to begin with. The only thing myself and many others recall from this meeting was being shown the “Consent is like Tea” video on YouTube. A video that barely scratches the surface of what consent is was somehow enough to check off your box for educating the incoming class on consent. I recall having to complete an online training on drugs and alcohol, along with that came a few slides on consent. I recall sitting on my couch and clicking through it so that I could check my own boxes to complete the training. I guess I can’t fully blame you for the lack of sex education, that should’ve fallen on my previous educators as well, but the chain of events that occurred after my assault only further proved that you do not know how to handle campus sexual violence at any level.
It wasn’t until February that I reported to your Title IX office. One of my close friends had been sexually assaulted around the same time and told me she finally got in to see the campus victim advocate and that it was a pleasant experience. She felt comfortable enough after meeting with her to report to Title IX and gave me her information. I eventually met with the victim advocate and decided to move forward on the same path. I’ll be honest, your Title IX office has never had a very positive reputation, so it took a lot of convincing and support from others to make me feel comfortable reporting. I learned pretty quickly why your Title IX office had such a poor reputation.
From the moment I walked in there I felt like I was the one who had committed a terrible act. I had written a statement to read, I knew I would break down crying if I didn’t have something prewritten. My investigator kept asking me “Is that all?” when I would finish a sentence. As soon as I finished reading my statement I regretted going in there. The only thing that kept me going from there on out was thinking that maybe I could prevent him from sexually assaulting someone else, that just maybe I could save someone else from this pain.
As the investigation progressed I felt more and more hopeless. The victim advocate often wasn’t able to come with me to meet with my investigator (I mean, who can blame her… she’s one advocate for over 12,000 students), only making me feel even more alone. Between cold calls from my investigator while in class to inappropriate questions about how much I was drinking or if I was diagnosed with any mental illnesses, I knew this wasn’t going my way. Often my investigator would tell me I would receive a document on one day, say Friday, and I wouldn’t receive anything until the following Wednesday. I would spend all my time anxiously awaiting that email or a phone call only for nothing to come. I was left on my own to discuss my situation in hopes of catching a break on my attendance grades, there was no help with academic accommodations. I had to advocate for myself to the scholarship department so that I didn’t lose my scholarship with my 1.5 GPA, so that I could stay in school. The counseling department was booking out months. I felt like if I needed any accommodations it was something I had to advocate for myself, divulging this traumatic experience to professors who didn’t even know my name.
My investigation began in early February and finally concluded late June. By then I had given up on answering the long lists of invasive questions, done with the pushing to do things I didn’t feel comfortable doing. You violated me in a whole new way. I remember exactly where I was when I got the email: “not responsible”. I remember having to run to the walk-in refrigerator at work to break down crying and having to pull myself together two minutes later. There were no resources included with the letter. Nowhere to provide feedback or to reach out. There was a weird sense of relief that it was all over… but for what? To feel betrayed by my university? To feel unsafe on my campus? To still have to see the person who violated me in the student center? I went through this investigation for months only to be worse off than when I started.
You truly abandoned me when I needed you the most. You pride yourself on your core values, “Our Common Ground”.
Respect. Integrity. Innovation. Openness. Justice. Responsibility.
It’s now been five years since I was sexually assaulted and chose to report to your office. Since then, countless survivors have come forward to share their stories, how they felt retraumatized reporting to your Title IX office, how they chose not to report because of the horrible things they’d heard, how you did nothing to support them.
Reflecting on Our Common Ground, do you truly believe these values were upheld? I see no justice here. Even survivors whose abusers were found responsible were left traumatized by you. While we were left to feel alone and betrayed by you, we found community with ourselves. The community that comes with survivorship is beautiful, it is tragic, and it is powerful.
You have failed hundreds of survivors by not giving them proper resources, by making them feel like they were the ones on trial, by allowing clubs and organizations that perpetuate this behavior to continue operating unscathed. You made us feel like no amount of “proof” in the world would be enough to be believed by you. Your Title IX office has a lack of understanding of different trauma responses, there is no “perfect victim”. This is not a story of one person with one experience. This is not an outlier.
I loved you so much. Honestly, even after all we’ve been through, I still love you. You brought me the best professors in the world, you brought me lifelong friendships, you brought me this community of survivors that is so incredible and powerful that we’re going to change the world. Because I love you, I am begging you to change. I am begging you to listen to survivors. I am begging you to give a proper class on consent. I am begging you to train your Title IX investigators and update your definition of consent. I am begging you to investigate your fraternities and sports teams with multiple valid accusations. I am begging you to uphold your common ground and hold yourself accountable.
One of the most valuable things I learned from my social work professors is the power of reflection. I hope you’ll take the time to reflect on my own reflection, on your common ground, and on the experiences of survivors on your campus.