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Sex-ed programs lead to greater awareness and consent on campus

Wellness Center programs have emphasized education on sex and relationship health

 Sex-ed programs lead to greater awareness and consent on campus

The University has made great strides in improving campus culture around sexual assault during its first year of official mandatory Empower AU sessions, with the participation of over 2,400 students in 2016.

In a continuing effort to reverse nationwide stigma about sexual assault awareness on college campuses, AU implemented mandatory sex-ed programs this semester for incoming students. After the inaugural program in 2015, it is now required that first-year students participate in both Empower AU during and “Think About It” online training. 

The purpose of these programs, which are organized by the Wellness Center, is to challenge social norms and myths about sex in college, according to Sara Yzaguirre, coordinator for victim advocacy services and staff adviser for Student Government’s Stopping Violence Against Women group and Students Against Sexual Violence. Yzaguirre said that these programs are designed to communicate AU’s values as soon as students step onto campus.

Empower AU

During Welcome Week, all first-year and transfer students were required to attend Empower AU workshops, which were organized and lead by OASIS, the sexual assault advocacy sector of the Wellness Center. Student facilitators led discussions and presented a PowerPoint that focused on sexual assault prevention and what healthy sex and consent look like as an adult.

To date, 2,444 students have participated in Empower AU, out of 2,659 incoming students, with make-up sessions still being finalized, according to Yzaguirre. Students had the opportunity to have an open dialogue with their peers about sexual conduct and behavior during the 90-minute session.

“Part of preventing violence is helping people understand what healthy sex looks like and [what] healthy sexuality looks like,” Yzaguirre said.

Fifty-five workshops were held during Welcome Week, with an average workshop size of 40 students. For those unable to attend, five make-up sessions were also held. The student facilitators who led Empower AU went through an application process and completed 24 hours of training about how to facilitate these discussions with first-year students, according to Director of the Wellness Center Mickey Irizarry.

Students who participated in Empower AU were also required to take electronic pre- and post-tests, with a 96 percent response rate for students trained during Welcome Week. This new method of post testing is a strong improvement over last year’s 24 percent response rate, according to the Wellness Center’s report on Empower AU from 2015.  

“It’s so cool that I go to a college that is dedicated on educating its students on this problem,” Julia White, a freshman in the School of International Service, said. “I appreciated that it was peer-led, and I felt more comfortable asking questions, and it was more useful.”

Yzaguirre wrote the curriculum for Empower AU with the assistance of 2013 AU graduate Emily Meyer, as well as with the assistance of multiple departments.

“It was really an all-hands on deck situation because there’s only four staff in the Wellness Center and we train, you know, thousands, so there was a lot of collaboration with other offices,” Yzaguirre said.

Empower AU was developed in November 2014 out of a recommendation from the AUSG Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Task Force in its “AU: It’s On Us” report. The task force consisted of a variety of student leaders, faculty and staff. After the report was released, the Wellness Center was awarded a $20,000 grant from AUSG to build a sexual assault prevention program for incoming students. These funds went toward the payment of facilitators, all merchandise and marketing materials and a staff assistant, according to Yzaguirre.

“For many first-year students, Empower AU is the first time they're hearing that sexual violence isn't always how it looks on Law and Order,” Faith Ferber, co-executive director of AU Students Against Sexual Violence, told The Eagle. “That's vital information because it can be incredibly validating for survivors to know that their experience was real and it was assault, even if it wasn't a stranger in a dark alley.”

Every student who goes through the program gets a “swag bag” that includes an OASIS cup, a laptop sticker and a booklet that includes information from the presentation. Some of the improvements from last year’s pilot program include an improved post-test that asked students about understanding consent and sexual awareness. The Office of Institutional Research assisted the Wellness Center staff in improving the post-test data from Empower AU sessions, according to Yzaguirre.

In the future, Irizarry, the Wellness Center director, believes the assessment will continue to improve and facilitator training will “evolve.” A sex education course for older students who have already experienced life in college is also something the Wellness Centers is looking for in coming years. Yzaguirre hopes these “booster” programs will be developed after holding focus groups with current students who have gone through Empower AU.

“In terms of future developments, we are working on creating comprehensive programming for students throughout their college experience,” Yzaguirre said. “Since this is the first ‘official year’ (last year was the pilot), we are going to look at this year’s incoming class as the cohort that will help shape future programming.”

“Think About It” Online Training

Over the summer, incoming students also completed the first section of a three-part online course titled “Think About It,” through This online class talks about critical life skills, like the responsibility of drug and alcohol use, bystander intervention and sexual assault prevention. The next two sessions of CampusClarity training will be completed by new students in three months, and also in seven months to build on their training.

The course was a total of two-and-a-half hours long, but could be completed in multiple stages and students had the option to save and come back later. “Think About It” has been in use at AU for two years, which was a switch from a program known as Haven.

“Over 85 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol,” Irizarry said. “... we know that first-year students are one of the high-risk populations when it comes to high-risk alcohol use… hitting them with both subjects at the same time makes sense developmentally.”

“Think About It” focuses more on the impact of drug and alcohol use in college, which has the potential to lead to unwanted sexual activity. While one in four women will experience sexual assault as some point in their lifetime, a study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that one-half of all sexual assaults committed by men involve his use of alcohol.

“What Would You Do?” Presentation

During Eagle Summit, incoming students also had the chance to hear Yzaguirre, Irizarry, and Wellness Center Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator, Maya Vizvary, speak for 45 minutes about consent, alcohol/drug use, and bystander awareness when it comes to sexual assault on campus. This additional programming is another way for the Wellness Center to interact with new students about these issues.

“We're teaching students how to think about their own boundaries, how to communicate with partners, and why it's so important to respect others,” Ferber said. “That's going to make a difference because we're counteracting the rape culture we have all grown up in and are surrounded by.”

Moving forward, the Wellness Center is hoping to expand these programs beyond the first-year class. They have a variety of programs planned throughout the fall semester for all students to participate in. The Wellness Center is hoping to grow sexual education programs beyond incoming students, who are most at risk for sexual violence, according to Irizarry.

“We also know that continued programming is key to changing attitudes, behaviors and the culture for the long term,” Yzaguirre said. “And that’s the ultimate goal.”

Clarification and correction appended: The original article stated that Sara Yzaguirre was the adviser for Student Government’s Stopping Violence Against Women group. It has been clarified to include that she is also the adviser for Students Against Sexual Violence. 

The original article also stated that the Empower AU workshop is one hour long. It has been corrected to say that it is 90-minutes long. 

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