Students aid victims of sexual assault

Volunteers serve as advocates through community programs.

by mackenzie collins

Every night, Kaitlin Voight-Fitzpatrick must be alert and ready to bolt out of bed or drop whatever sheâÄôs doing in order to offer her presence. Through community programs and the University of MinnesotaâÄôs own Aurora Center, Voight-Fitzpatrick and other students are helpline and legal advocates for education on sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking. A family and social sciences senior, Voight-Fitzpatrick interns for Sexual Offense Services in St. Paul, where three days a week she counsels clients, conducts one-on-one therapy and runs a local support group for teenage girls of the target population for sexual assault. âÄúOne of my first cases happened on the University campus with a freshman at the dorms,âÄù Voight-Fitzpatrick said. âÄúIt really doesnâÄôt hit you until you realize how much you can relate to them as a U of M student.âÄù The Aurora Center advocates undergo an intensive application and screening process followed by more than 40 hours of training. Once certified, the student volunteers assist in counseling and responding to calls to the centerâÄôs crisis line, which can include anything from assault questions to a request for an advocate to accompany the victim to the hospital. During the 2008-09 school year, 281 clients sought the services and resources of the Aurora Center, according to its annual report. While many community programs have similar services, the social dynamics and large size of the University make the Aurora Center program unique, said Roberta Gibbons, associate director of the Aurora Center. âÄúIf youâÄôre the survivor of a sexual assault in college, itâÄôs even more likely for you to know your attacker, and itâÄôs more likely theyâÄôre going to be in your social group,âÄù Gibbons said. âÄúAnd youâÄôre going to run into that person in the dining hall or class or extracurricular activities.âÄù The U. S. Department of Justice has found through consistent research over the past two decades that one in five college women will experience sexual assault while in college, Gibbons said. Michelle Joseph, a senior majoring in global studies and Spanish, has been an advocate at the Aurora Center for the past two years. âÄúItâÄôs hard sometimes when a client comes in and tells me their story, and I feel a lump start to build in my throat,âÄù Joseph said. âÄúI want to hug them and cry with them, but I realize that I can do more good by giving them the resources that they need.âÄù The University also provides a system where attackers can be held accountable for their actions through the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity, Gibbons added. After the extensive training and experiences, Joseph said her role as an advocate has impacted her own relationships and life choices. âÄúI canâÄôt listen to rap anymore. I mean, I know itâÄôs just a song, but the lyrics are demeaning to women,âÄù Joseph said. âÄúAnd my boyfriend isnâÄôt allowed to say âÄòshut up.âÄô IâÄôm just always demanding more respect.âÄù Voight-Fitzpatrick has been present at a hospital for four different sexual assault cases, and she said some victims have appreciated her presence during the invasive examination. She has also had one girl ask her to leave the room because the victim said it made her feel uncomfortable. âÄúItâÄôs a lot of responsibility for a student,âÄù Voight-Fitzpatrick said, âÄúbut itâÄôs given me invaluable experience.âÄù