Editor's Note: The Morningside Post received this anonymous submission earlier this month. Because we have no other way of contacting the contributor, we wanted to first and foremost thank you for sharing this story and express our heartbreak that this happened to you. If there is anything we can do, please do not hesitate to reach out. We delayed in posting to ensure that this would not interfere with possible ongoing investigations or break university policies.
To the readers, please note that this article deals with sexual harassment and assault. There are resources for survivors at the bottom of the article under the banner of "For Survivors," if you believe a firsthand account is too difficult to read at this particular moment.
This article describes some resources for sexual violence survivors in the aftermath of their experience. If you require immediate assistance, please call 911 and consult this page.
The #MeToo movement could not have come at a more relevant time in my life. I am a recent SIPA grad and my experience at SIPA was marked with sexual violence. Now that I’ve had some time to look back, it’s really sunk in just how profoundly sexual violence has impacted my life and ability to function, and it seems high time for me to add my voice to the movement. If you are a survivor of sexual violence, I hope this article will show that you are not alone, and that Columbia offers many resources to support you. If you have friends who are survivors, I’ve suggested some ways you can be a strong ally.
The term ‘sexual violence’ is an umbrella term that includes crimes like sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and rape, among others. The FBI’s legal definition of rape is “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Columbia has published its own definitions of different forms of sexual violence here.
Sexual violence affects every demographic and every community. Communities of color and transgender/non-binary people are likely to experience higher levels of sexual violence and often have fewer resources available to them. I’d like to reinforce that survivors come from all genders, but most data is put in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women.’ In the US, 1 in 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, and 1 in 4 has survived sexual assault. Around 80% of women and 40% of men experience sexual harassment. Although some survivors are relatively fine afterwards, many feel the effects for months and years afterward - over 10% of women who are raped attempt suicide.
I was sexually abused by my father for the first 12 years of my life. He has stalked me intermittently ever since, despite two restraining orders. I was date raped twice in my early 20s, in both situations having been raped while unconscious. Before attending SIPA, I drove for Uber to earn some extra money to fund my move to New York, and I was harassed constantly by my fares and sexually assaulted once. During my first semester at SIPA, my roommate sexually assaulted me because I wouldn’t date him. (Two fist fights is two too many.) All of these examples are classified as sexual violence.
I went into my last semester at SIPA feeling great about my wonderful friends, exciting classes, an assistantship, and in top physical and mental health. I thought I had my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) conquered after years of therapy, medication, and meditation, plus I had the strongest support system I had ever had. But no matter how strong you are, life can still beat the absolute shit out of you sometimes. I got knocked down by three serious illnesses, and when my father unexpectedly began stalking me again during the last month of classes, it set me off on the worst PTSD episode of my adult life.
I was completely overwhelmed. I have never felt so out of control over my own body or mind. I moved away and lost my support system and the momentum of the semester. I stopped communicating with everyone – family, friends, and professors. OSA halfheartedly tried to contact me twice but I simply ignored them. I spent weeks in bed at my mom’s house and slept between 12-18 hours every night, riddled with night terrors and even sleepwalking. I would wake up crying or shouting and drenched in cold sweat. Flashbacks and hallucinations were daily visitors, and the constant nausea and vertigo were debilitating. My physical health plummeted. I somehow managed to hold down an internship but found it utterly impossible to concentrate on anything. It ultimately took me several months to finish my schoolwork to ensure my graduation. 
Mental health is a serious concern. It is not a luxury. You may not be able to see your mental health, but it is every bit as important as physical health. In the case of sexual violence, it is never the victim’s fault. There is no shame or guilt in being a survivor. Every survivor has a unique response with its own severity and symptoms, and everybody heals differently.
If you’re a survivor of sexual violence, I encourage you to reach out to your loved ones and to the resources around Columbia. I’ve found that building a support network for myself is the hardest thing to do, but it’s also the most important.
Below are some campus resources that I have personally used and can vouch for. Columbia has compiled a directory of contact information for several of these and other off-campus resources.
- Sexual Violence Response (SVR) is your first line of defense. They offer too many services to list here - all completely confidential. They listened intently to my entire story and found temporary on-campus accommodations for me after my roommate assaulted me, which gave me a safe place to stay while looking for a new apartment. It was because of them that I was able to remove myself from a dangerous situation and focus on my academic work.
- Columbia Psychological Services (CPS). I believe everyone can benefit from therapy, but I think it can be especially helpful for survivors. If you have the student health insurance plan, CPS therapy sessions are free. I didn’t really connect with the first therapist I saw, but it was simple to transfer to another one who was a wonderful fit for me. They suggested I participate in group therapy with other survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I admit I was initially skeptical, but it was an unexpected relief to talk to other women who had had similar experiences, and it gave me the framework to do a lot of important emotional work. CPS is also confidential and offers psychiatric services if you require medication.
- SIPA Office of Student Affairs (OSA). Believe me, I know better than most how incompetent and infuriating OSA can be (sorry OSA, just being honest). But, at the end of the day, they have the influence around campus that’s needed to mobilize other offices. I especially recommend Dean Brown.
- Your professors. It’s not fun to get an email from your professor asking, “Did you fall off the planet?” and have to respond that, yes, in fact, you did. If you have the strength, give your professors an idea of what you’re going through. You don’t have to go into great detail, but chances are that they’ll be accommodating and want to help you.
- Public Safety. If you’re feeling unsafe, this is exactly what you want: tough New York City cops who don’t take any chances when it comes to your safety. They’re also a confidential resource. They helped me twice and I couldn’t sing their praises more. However, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that I am white and undoubtedly benefit from the systemic racism in law enforcement.
- The Ombuds Office can point you in the right direction for just about anything, particularly legal questions, e.g. if you’re considering pressing charges against an attacker. They walked me through the process of suing my former roommate after he didn’t pay rent.
- SIPA Financial Aid Office. Sometimes you need extra money to get you out of a bad situation or get you the care you need. You may be able to take out loans, even if you already have loans or if you’re an international student. Your health and safety are worth it. I already have tons of US federal loans and I was surprised how easy it was to request more.
- SIPA Emergency Fund. I assumed I didn’t qualify to receive money from the Emergency Fund but a SIPASA board member later told me that I would have been a good candidate. It truly never hurts to try. Talk to SIPASA if you have any questions. It’s a group of dedicated, caring people who want to help.
- Office of Disability Services (ODS). Some mental health conditions are also considered disabilities. By registering with ODS, you can select from a long list of accommodations that can make your time at SIPA a little easier. I’ve spoken with friends, particularly international students, who worry that having a disability will be seen as a slight against them for future jobs. I don’t doubt that that might be an issue in other countries, but ODS registration does not appear on your transcript, and, at least in the US, employers are not legally allowed to discriminate against candidates on the basis of disability.
As a caveat, this list is not exhaustive. For example, the Gender-Based Misconduct Office supports and provides assistance to students affected by gender-based misconduct. The Office published a guide to University policy and procedures in September 2017 that discusses this topic in much greater depth.
Even if you’re not a sexual violence survivor, Columbia has other resources that may help you. For one, I wish I had taken advantage of Columbia Health’s sleep services. Many of the above resources are there whether you want advice, you’re experiencing financial difficulty, or if you’re going through a generally hard time.
Growing up in the US, we’re told that mental health is secondary, or that people use it as an excuse to be lazy or as a way of getting attention. I’m from a more progressive, privileged family and it still took me years to overcome the internalized patriarchal belief that my experiences aren’t valid. So here I am, a complete stranger, giving you unconditional permission to let go of that guilt and do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. You deserve it. Be gentle with yourself, and remember that you have a right to be here.
If you want to support your fellow students who are survivors of sexual violence, I have some recommendations:
- First and foremost, observe, listen, and show you care. I know several other survivors at SIPA and the odds are that you do, too, whether you realize it or not. The same advice holds true that applies to anyone who’s ever gone through anything rough (that is, literally, everyone): don’t single us out, but do listen to us and recognize our struggles. If someone shares their story with you, please acknowledge their bravery and the trust they’ve placed in you. Keep an eye out for signs someone might be struggling: changes in mood, appetite, energy levels, etc. It only takes a second to ask someone how they’re doing, and a little extra compassion can make a world of difference.
- Speak up and step in. If you’re a bystander of sexual harassment, grab a friend or a police officer, disrupt the situation, and confront the harasser. Let them know that behavior is unacceptable and make sure the target gets the support they need.
- Contribute to the Emergency Fund and support need-based aid initiatives. Taking care of your mental health can unfortunately get expensive, and domestic violence victims can be forced into staying in their situations because of financial limitations. SIPASA has been spearheading need-based aid efforts, so talk to them about ways to get involved. I’m a white US citizen from a middle-class family, and I can’t begin to imagine how much more difficult it might be for someone without my privileges, e.g. students of color or international students. Especially since SIPA—the (self-proclaimed) “world’s most global public policy school”—could benefit from having a more diverse student body from more backgrounds, socioeconomic groups, and countries of origin. (Ever wondered why there aren’t more Africans at SIPA? I sure as hell have. But that’s a topic worth its own article.)
- Consider becoming a Sexual Violence Response Peer Advocate. Peer advocates play a unique role in destigmatizing mental health issues. While there’s 40 hours of training at the beginning, the following time commitment is a few hours a month, and the emotional skills you develop in training will stick with you for life.
To learn more about how to support sexual violence survivors, check out this guide from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
As a survivor, SIPA can be a particularly difficult place because you’re inundated with the biggest big-picture problems, but it also can also provide a supportive, healing environment with so many resources available in one spot. The #MeToo movement is a reminder that we have to collectively address sexual violence, starting with us survivors getting the help we need to ultimately become the strongest, most effective practitioners possible.
-  https://www.rainn.org/types-sexual-violence
-  https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/violent-crime/rape/rapemain_final.pdf
-  https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community
-  https://sapac.umich.edu/article/57
-  https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence
-  http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/2018-national-sexual-abuse-report/
-  https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence
-  https://www.boredpanda.com/for-inktober-i-focused-on-mental-illness-and-disorders/?
-  https://health.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/Docs/disability_registration.pdf
-  https://www.eeoc.gov/employees/index.cfm
-  https://www.speakcdn.com/assets/2497/domestic_violence_and_economic_abuse_ncadv.pdf
-  https://sipa.columbia.edu/experience-sipa/global-un-connections