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WVU Peer Advocates support Title IX, sexual assault prevention and response education as extension of 'It's On Us' campaign

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West Virginia Universitylaunched the It's On Us program in early 2015 as part of a national campaign to emphasize the importance of preventing and reporting sexual assault on campuses.


Now, WVU is bringing some powerful student voices into the campaign to help raise awareness on campus, offer support and present options to peers who are victims of sexual assault.

Known as Peer Advocates, these 51 students receive a minimum of 65 hours of training as part of a three-credit course designed by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusionand theCenter for Service and Learning. The class is designed to train students in educating the student body with critical prevention information and response protocols for sexual assault and power-based personal violence. They receive medical, legal and judicial counseling and criminal protocols, in addition to gender identity, human sexuality and LGBTQ perspectives.

While fall 2015 was the first semester for the course, the Peer Advocate program started in 2014, when WELLWVUbegan working with students to train them to respond to sexual assault victims through the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center. The Peer Advocate experience transitioned to a course through the championing ofProvost Joyce McConnell,who felt the classroom setting presented critical education and training opportunities necessary for the program to succeed.

"The students who commit to being Peer Advocates devote tremendous time and energy to helping other students-strangers-through unbelievably difficult experiences," McConnell said. "The class framework underscores the importance of this work, allowing students to earn academic credit and putting advocacy training in the context of professionalization and service learning, which is where it truly belongs."

According to course instructor andTitle IXEducation Specialist Mariana Matthews, the Peer Advocates' learning isn't limited to the classroom. They are utilizing community resources and experts to educate the students on the fundamental protocols and perspectives that are necessary to prepare these students to support their peers and help them begin to heal from the trauma of sexual assault.

"Peer Advocates are trained by experts so that they can become campus resources and support their peers who have been victims of sexual assault and power-based personal violence," said Matthews. "They are trained by professionals at the Morgantown Police Department,Ruby Memorial Hospital,the prosecutor's office, the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center and WVU's Title IX office."

WVUinternational studiessenior Samantha Shimer is currently enrolled in the Peer Advocate class and also received training last year prior to its inception. She said she became involved because she believes she can have a positive influence in helping students who have been affected by sexual assault.

"The first few people that a victim interacts with in the aftermath of sexual assault really play a big role in shaping your experience with it and how you process it," said Shimer. "If those individuals victim-blame or downplay the severity of the incident, that can negatively impact their healing process."

Public administrationgraduate student and Peer Advocate Brooke Bailey said that she works to dispel the myth that sexual assault only happens at the hands of the 'stranger in the bushes'.

"Most instances of sexual assault are committed by someone you know," said Bailey. "That leads some victims to question whether or not they were actually assaulted, because it's hard to comprehend that someone you know could violate you. Many victims need the validation that this was truly sexual assault."

Matthews emphasized that helping victims of power-based personal violence understand that what happened to them isn't their fault is one of the core missions of the Peer Advocate program.

"Many people have this 'I knew them, it must be something I did' mentality when they are victims of sexual assault," said Matthews. "We want them to know that this isn't their fault and offer them the right resources to cope with the trauma and start down the right path to healing."

Matthews said confidentiality is paramount to the peer advocate process and the students are simply there to present students with options for healing - they are not pressured to make contact with law enforcement, hospitals or counselors.

For sophomoreaerospace engineeringmajor and Peer Advocate Faiyaz Faraque, his goal is to let students who are hurting from sexual assault know that someone is always there to listen and support them in the aftermath of sexual assault.

"If you can help just one person and make them feel comfortable and safe in knowing that you are there to listen and help them process their options and resources, you've made a lasting impact on their healing and well-being," he said. "It puts you in a position to help care for others when they need it the most."

WVU Director of Equity Assurance/Title IX CoordinatorJames Goins, Jr., said promoting sexual assault awareness and prevention efforts is critical on college campuses - and he hopes it's a message all members of the WVU family will take seriously.

'We are excited to continue our efforts with the National 'It's On Us' campaign," Goins said. "West Virginia University has taken great strides to encourage bystander intervention, education around the meaning of consent, and to reinforce that sexual assault is never accepted. To supplement this proactive movement, we are continuously working to create a campus that supports and empowers all survivors of sexual and power-based personal violence to seek resources available on campus.

"It is every Mountaineer's responsibility to intervene if they see suspicious or concerning activities. I encourage all students to sign the It's On Us pledge and to continue to create a safer, more inclusive environment for all Mountaineers," Goins said.

WELLWVU works with the Title IX office in accordance with promising practices in violence prevention as outlined in the Campus SaVE Act through bystander intervention training.

Students who are victims of sexual assault or power-based personal violence are encouraged to call the RDVIC hotline at 304-292-5100 to connect with a Peer Advocate.



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