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Protecting students from sexual assault

A U. of Pittsburgh senior, with the Cathedral of Learning, home to Pitt’s Title IX office, in the background.
A U. of Pittsburgh senior, with the Cathedral of Learning, home to Pitt’s Title IX office, in the background. Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood


An institutional and cultural problem

Emma Folts, our reporter with PublicSource, and Mila Sanina spent the fall covering the Red Zone, a time of increased sexual assaults on college campuses.

They talked with survivors about their experiences of grief, trauma, and confusion. They told the stories of students who are educating their peers and college men who are engaged in sexual violence prevention. They asked what more can be done to protect those at risk and published a resource guide for students seeking care and support.

We talked with Emma this week about the series:

What is one of your biggest takeaways from your Red Zone reporting? 

Sexual violence on college campuses is both an institutional and cultural problem, and fixing one won’t solve the other.

On the institutional side, several survivors told us that the process of reporting their assault and seeking recourse from their universities was re-traumatizing, drawn-out, or ultimately unhelpful. That remains one significant challenge. But we also heard from survivors that they questioned their experiences, that their friends continued to associate with their assailants, and that university prevention education was ineffective.

Universities need to ensure that survivors feel safe and comfortable reporting, but they also need to shift cultures on campus that perpetuate assault and victim blaming. Students can play a role in the latter, too.

Building trust with survivors was a core part of your work in this series. What did you learn from that process?

As a reporter, my job is to provide as much control as I can back to the survivor, whether that’s the location of our interview or the aspects of their story we share with the world. I learned how to best frame stories about trauma, both in my interviews and in my writing. For example, instead of focusing only on their experience with sexual violence, I asked: What does justice look like to you? Where are you on your healing journey today?

What kind of feedback or reaction have you gotten? 

This moment in particular stood out to me: In October, a female student at Pitt was reportedly assaulted in a prominent campus building, prompting a student protest and a university town hall on sexual violence. Members of the media weren’t allowed to attend, but I stood in the lobby to try and speak with students after. I found a group of about 10 students standing around the elevator, several of whom I had interviewed for the project. They recognized me, invited me into their circle, and told the rest of their friends about the project and PublicSource. It was really moving to see that our work resonated and was of service to students, and that they recognized and trusted me. 

+ Read the full Red Zone series at PublicSource

Colleen Murphy and Sara Hebel

Our new Chicago reporter

We’re excited to welcome Lisa Philip, who started this week as the higher ed reporter at our new partner newsroom WBEZ Chicago.

Lisa grew up in the Chicago area and has previously covered education for WUNC in Durham, N.C., and the Baltimore Sun Media Group. We also crossed paths with Lisa several years ago when she was a multimedia intern at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lisa says she’s excited to hear from young adults and center their perspectives as she reports on key higher ed issues, including affirmative action, declining enrollments among students of color, and student debt. “I am thrilled to get to do all this in my hometown,” she adds, “while learning from my colleagues at WBEZ and Open Campus’s national network of higher education reporters and editors.”

If you have story ideas for Lisa, send her a note here.

Expanding in California

We’re partnering with CalMatters to add a reporter dedicated to covering the state’s enormous community college system. With 116 colleges and 1.8 million students, the system is so large that it’s almost hard to fathom.

One fun fact we’re fond of sharing to try to put it in perspective: Roughly one in every 12 undergraduates in the nation attends a California community college.

The community college reporter will be part of our Open Campus Local Network and will work as part of a team covering higher ed at CalMatters, which includes the CalMatters College Journalism Network. The position is supported by a grant from the College Futures Foundation.

Here’s more information on the job and where to apply. Feel free to reach out with questions, and please share the opportunity with your networks, too.

Thank you

We exceeded our one-day, $5,000 fundraising goal for GivingTuesday, thanks to the generosity of our readers. We’re so appreciative of your support, which will help us add in-depth coverage to more cities and states in 2023.

Between now and the end the year, all gifts to Open Campus will continue to be doubled, thanks to NewsMatch. (And new monthly donations will be matched 12x.) Here’s where to give.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

From Work Shift: Our new guide, Understanding New Collar Apprenticeships, explores the evolving landscape of apprenticeships. Long a pathway into the trades, they now also prepare Americans for jobs in fields like healthcare and tech. And governments and companies are putting big money into modernizing, diversifying, and growing the system.

From Colorado: Red Rocks Community College has set up academic alert systems that flag when students are struggling in class — a possible sign of a food or housing need.

From The Intersection: Naomi Harris explores how experts are helping students find belonging and stay enrolled.

From College Inside: Ryan Moser, who is incarcerated in Florida, writes about what it’s been like watching his son’s college journey unfold from afar.

Keep in touch

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