Colleges operate on the guarantee that students will leave after four years. This is not always the case—people take time off, transfer, etc.
But our transience is inherent to the romanticization of college and how most institutions treat the individuals who generate their income at tuition-dependent schools (like the one I attended, Kenyon); we're temporary.
Many college students don’t develop a complete understanding of what should be critiqued at their schools until they’re upperclassmen. This is when our focus is shifted
toward the challenge of postgrad employment and the weight of academic requirements that our graduation is contingent upon. Administrative pushback is daunting when graduation is fast approaching and required for future plans. It’s often easier to get out if you don’t speak up.
It’s common for students, faculty, even family to say “it’s okay, you’ll be out of here soon.” This shouldn’t be the case: we should not be discouraged from utilizing our privilege as students, especially at private colleges, to improve our schools, and, by extension, the quality of our own lives and those of our peers.
However, this discouragement seems to be normative. How often have you been consoled about something that makes you angry or uncomfortable on campus with the rhetoric of it “being okay because” a break is coming up, or an opportunity to study abroad, or your graduation is fast approaching?
The rhetoric of “grinning and bearing it” aligns with telling individuals who are unhappy, uncomfortable, or being hurt to endure until the source of their pain relents. To be completely frank, it reminds me of Queen Victoria telling her daughter to “lay back and think of England” re: non-consensual sex following her arranged marriage, an understandably triggering and troubling term.
This is not an acceptable means of consolation for administrators to convey toward students (and families) who pay enormous sums to attend colleges, are active in their communities, and yet discouraged by the reception of their efforts. We don't have absolute autonomy over our lives while students, or ever, but I am steadfast in believing that we are deserving of more respect, worthy of active change rather than defeatist consolation.
This has perhaps best been illustrated by my experience with Title IX at Kenyon.
Most of my classmates don’t remember the name of one of the best friends I made here. She was assaulted within a month of our return to campus, sophomore year.
My friend had barely complained through major surgeries throughout her childhood. She weathered the early and unexpected death of a close family member with fortitude beyond her years.
She hated asking for help.
She called me after. I sobbed so hard my eyes clouded over and the cold hallway I was sitting in seemed to float. I was off campus, and I begged a friend to please take care of her over the phone until I could get there. I was shocked and heartbroken that the world had failed her. I think I knew then, that her suffering would be irrevocable and indefinite.
The Title IX case that followed was the first of five that I have been a witness in at Kenyon.
I didn’t expect that her experience of filing a Title IX case against her rapist would be grueling, mishandled, and dehumanizing. I did not expect that I would remain on this campus among those who had sided with her assailant or that the dining hall and sidewalks would narrow every time I encountered one of them.
Faculty and staff she was close to dedicated every ounce of energy they could to fighting this process while trying to alleviate the simultaneous suffering the case and her trauma caused.
She thought about transferring, and the rhetoric of leaving being the best, imminent solution returned.
Sophomore me cheerfully gave tours and sang the praises of a place I no longer believed in. I taught spin classes at Kenyon’s athletic center, I thought about transferring in protest.
My parents staged an intervention when I was home on break. They thought something had happened to me directly, because all I would say was “something bad happened.” I had to protect her privacy. They didn't recognize me anymore. My grades suffered. I was miserable. My interests and spaces where I felt comfortable on campus had radically begun to shift.
Supporting multiple people who have experienced acute trauma is a burden. It wears on you, to be available, together, and furious.
But what advocacy and support I could offer was necessary, because while my friend and others tried to reclaim themselves, and their futures, arbitrary elements of the Title IX policy and administrative error reinforced their pain. This experience caused me to feel a deep discomfort and distrust toward Kenyon’s Title IX administrators, which endures.
She left Kenyon at the end of the year.
About a year later, a Kenyon alumnus, who had once frequented my spin class, returned to campus. This scared me, because he’d been exhibiting stalking behavior towards me since the summer.
The worst episode of this behavior occurred over winter break of my junior year. He saw I was at my favorite restaurant in New York on my snapchat story, took a car there, and waited for me outside. I didn't know he was in the city—I was cheerful but distant whenever he reached out, hoping he’d get discouraged and this would be the last time we’d interact. I’d been explicit on multiple occasions that I was not interested. Mutual friends had tried to reason with him, citing my sexuality as why nothing would ever happen. I thought him being outside the restaurant was a coincidence. I was polite.
Then, he told me how he’d found me and what he’d done. I was meeting someone nearby and made as quick an exit as I could. I was lucky this person’s objective that evening was not having sex with me. Still, I was being followed. I was told it would be ok, once I blocked him on all social media and was in a different location than him.
On another occasion, he came up to me at a bar on campus. I hadn’t known he was visiting Kenyon. I left immediately. I asked to join a group of men walking toward south campus, where I lived. I started complaining about what had just happened. I was scared.
Kenyon has a student population of roughly 1,700. Our campus is small. Jokes are often made about how easy it is to know where someone is or what they are doing, regardless of the day or time. Students are prohibited from living off campus.
“What if a guy’s just trying to be nice?” someone I was walking with asked.
I couldn’t help myself, I told him he didn't understand and cited my friend’s case as justification for my anger and fear. I knew he knew about it. “There were a lot of grey areas in that case,” he said. I excused myself and walked the rest of my way home alone.
I called Kenyon’s Sexual Misconduct Advisor hotline the following day, asking what I should do. They said to call campus safety. Safety said they couldn’t share any information about whether he was a registered guest (which would mean they knew when he was leaving) in order to protect his privacy. I understood this—I wanted my own privacy protected. But there had to be something they could do. “I’m a student,” I said. “Isn’t my safety your priority? Is there anything you can do?” Their short answer was no.
I drove to a friend’s apartment in Columbus, waiting until a mutual friend could confirm he’d left.
A guy who lived on my hall knocked on my door and asked me out a few days later, I turned him down and he said we should still get coffee. This reminded me of my stalker not listening to my clear disinterest. I went and hid on a different floor until it was late enough, so I could be sure I wouldn’t bump into him on my way to brush my teeth.
I’d recently been elected into a “working group” established during my junior year to facilitate communication between Kenyon students and administration. The group was created in response to a series of controversial administrative decisions that were made with little to no student input or warning.
I was the only woman in the group, and its co-chair. The working group didn't focus on Title IX. A separate committee was established for that purpose. I didn’t feel comfortable contributing to that group’s efforts.
Being a member of the working group provided me with insight into the intricacies of Kenyon’s administration. What I saw were many individuals doing their best to connect with students who are plagued by apathy and general misunderstanding of how the administration at this school functions. I saw students and administrators willing to work together.
I also saw the prioritization of more immediate work over repairing many damaged precedents that this work often reinforced.
Most of the group members graduated and little was accomplished by the year’s end. The group was promised a follow-up consideration of our suggestions this February or April. No administrators involved contacted us within their proposed timeline. This is something I’ve discussed with student government representatives, who reached a similar conclusion. Granted, I haven’t personally followed up regarding this meeting beyond that discussion and the expectations that were established at the group’s conclusion.
It seems, to both myself and the student government, as though the working group was a means of quelling the concerns of those who were on their way out, and those members who remained on campus after this diffusion occurred are conveniently overcommitted.
I should have tried to meet with these individuals before I graduated, but it was easy for my focus to shift to grassroots change I felt I had greater control over. This felt especially true after encountering the administrators involved multiple times my senior year without any mention of what we had worked on the year before.
I think this speaks to the nature of activism on our campus and within this four-year cycle. The sooner a problem is no longer viewed as a priority, the better.
I know a packed schedule in a culture of overachievement is not an excuse. It is difficult to balance an agenda of personal responsibility while aiming to change the superstructure of an institution under the sway of trustees and federal legislation, like Title IX.
A few weeks after the working group election, I interviewed to be an admissions fellow. I was asked what I thought Kenyon’s largest problem was. I said handling of sexual misconduct—I was getting a lot of questions about this on tours, from parents and students. I responded by relaying information about on-campus resources and describing the issue as “an active discussion on campus,” but never brought this up unsolicited.
In my interview, I mentioned that Kenyon’s handling of sexual misconduct had an impact on my personal experience at the school as well. I presented this issue as a matter of student safety, first and foremost, and public relations second.
I did not get the position. When I asked for feedback, I was told that my mention of sexual misconduct in any admissions context was unprofessional. The members of admissions staff that had interviewed me and provided this feedback did not return for the 2016-2017 school year, but these events were unrelated.
A week later, Michael Hayes’ letter on behalf of his sister, Chelsie, was released. This letter detailed Kenyon’s gross mishandling of Chelsie’s sexual assault case, and garnered national attention.
After a working group meeting that followed this experience, I told President Decatur and Meredith Bonham, our vice president for student affairs, what happened. They were sympathetic.
Around that time, I was sexually harassed by a classmate. He tried to explain himself by saying he’d been drinking for twelve hours. I told him he needed to get help and deleted the messages he’d sent me after I ran away from him, asking where I was going. I didn't file a case. I tried to chalk it up to misunderstanding. I was friendlier toward him than I should have been, after. I regret this. I was tired.
I met with the lawyer who produced Kenyon’s external audit of Title IX following the outcry and media attention Michael’s letter caused. I read her findings.
I found elements of an online education program required of Kenyon students during the 2017-2018 academic year to be incredibly problematic when presented as the school’s official opinion about sex, drugs, and alcohol, but it was the first evidence I’d seen of the administration trying to facilitate increased education surrounding sexual misconduct.
Kenyon’s Sexual Misconduct Advisors and Peer Counselors often perform more emotional labor than any one person should. But I don’t want to fill out a survey about my experience with Title IX. I don’t want to talk to administrators about it anymore.
I am trying to avoid viewing this community in hyperbolic terms—there are faculty, administrators and students whom I am incredibly grateful to have known and worked with at Kenyon. I am privileged to be a Kenyon alum, privileged that I attended a school where our president knew who I was and genuinely cared how my semester is going.
This is difficult to do; however, when expressing dissent and activating for change can be dismissed as rude or unprofessional. It is difficult to balance activism with schoolwork, career planning, and self-preservation; as a result, building the friendships that can make navigating these problems more manageable is often a neglected exercise.
Once I graduated, my presence and voice were no longer part of “the Kenyon community” proper, arguably the schools’ most promoted asset to incoming students.
I am no longer be a source of income for the school, and my safety is no longer the school’s concern.
When my friend left, she was quickly forgotten, along with her experience and opinions regarding its disgusting outcome. She remains in touch with those who advocated for her.
Advocacy based upon personal experience is contingent on knowledge gained from what went wrong, what was painful, and what was unfair.
People with firsthand Title IX experience did not choose to acquire their expertise.
Those with experiences or identities of any sort that motivate them toward activism likely did not choose to acquire their expertise, either.
Telling someone this will be over soon because they will be able to leave where it occurred is not a solution. Trauma doesn't disappear along with where it took place. I refuse to accept what I was not able to change at Kenyon, for myself, my friend, survivors, or anyone who does not feel safe and valued on campus.
Within our current political landscape, this feels especially important.
The harmful behavioral patterns and rhetoric that can be perpetrated here or at similar schools, or by politicians, cannot be internalized or repeated beyond our departures, especially if it inhibits self-advocacy.
It is not acceptable to tolerate trauma, discomfort, or discrimination because it’s thought to have an expiration date.
This much we can control and learn from, long after our four years have ended.