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Orientation talk addresses issue of sexual assault

After participating in an energetic welcome rally on Sunday evening, thousands of first-year Queen’s students returned to the Athletics & Recreation Centre on Monday to hear educator and activist Rachel Griffin share her personal experiences as a survivor of sexual assault. The mood in the massive gymnasium was much more subdued as students listened respectfully.

As Dr. Griffin’s talk drew to a close, though, the students rose to their feet – much like they did the night before – and showed their appreciation for the message delivered by the guest speaker.

[Rachel Griffin]
Rachel Griffin (right) speaks with Claire Gummo (left), assistant director of the Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC), Ann Tierney, Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs, and Rector Mike Young following her presentation to first-year students. 

“You can choose, individually and collectively, to create a climate on campus where all survivors of sexual assault can come forward and say, ‘I am hurt, and I need help,’” Dr. Griffin said. “I am a survivor of rape but I am asking you to always remember that I am a person, and survivors like me deserve to be treated like people. We deserve to be treated like people worthy of compassion and care and respect, no exceptions.”

That message resonated with first-year student Summer Shaikh.

“I think it’s always important to remember that people might not be super willing to share if they are having problems, but you should always be aware that they might need the help regardless and be open to that and be accepting,” she said following the talk.

“I was really proud of how attentive and respectful our students were,” says Ann Tierney, Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs, who seeded the idea to bring Dr. Griffin to Queen’s.

Dr. Griffin, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University, was raped in high school by a male student. She kept the assault secret for years, she says, suffering psychological pain and feelings of worthlessness, and engaging in self-destructive behaviour.

Seven years after the assault, she built up the courage to share her experience with a peer support advocate at the university she was attending as an undergraduate student. Dr. Griffin says the peer advocate responded by saying she believed her and that what her attacker did was wrong and it was not her fault. That response changed Dr. Griffin’s life.

“The woman who put my needs above all else, who said ‘I believe you,’ saved me. I honestly can tell you I don’t think I would be alive today if the first person I told, after I finally built up the courage to ask for help, hadn’t said ‘I believe you.’”

Claire Gummo, Artsci’17, said Dr. Griffin was an incredible speaker who connected with students. Ms. Gummo, a member of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Working Group, said that inviting Dr. Griffin to speak to all first-year students demonstrates the university’s commitment to survivors and its commitment to a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual violence.

Ms. Gummo, who is also the assistant director of the Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC) on campus, said she was pleased to hear Dr. Griffin’s strong message about the importance of “enthusiastic consent” between sexual partners.
 
You can choose, individually and collectively, to create a climate on campus where all survivors of sexual assault can come forward and say, ‘I am hurt, and I need help.'
— Dr. Rachel Griffin, educator and activist

She hopes students and the university build on the momentum initiated by Dr. Griffin’s talk.

“It’s great that we had Dr. Griffin here today, but this can’t be the last thing. This needs to continue on, and the students and administration need to make a commitment to survivors that will last throughout the year not just during orientation week.”

The orientation keynote address is part of the broader awareness-raising and prevention education initiatives being undertaken by Queen’s. In the spring of 2015, the SAPR Working Group released a report with several recommendations to enhance sexual violence prevention, support and response. An implementation team, chaired by Alan Harrison, Provost and Vice-Principal Academic, has been tasked with reviewing and prioritizing the recommendations.

“Dr. Griffin is extremely knowledgeable about the subject of gendered and sexual violence,” says Arig al Shaibah, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs who also chairs the SAPR Working Group. “More importantly, her story-telling approach really resonated with the students.”

Visit the Student Affairs website for more information about the services and resources on campus and in the community to support survivors of sexual assault.