A Fresh Look At First Year

Everyone from your teachers to that uncle who tells terrible jokes over dinner seems to have advice on how to “get the most out of your college experience!” It’s tricky to navigate that tide of information–especially when it’s mixed with misinformation, myths, assumptions, and more.

It’s time to look past the noise and take a Fresh Look at First Year, one that closely and honestly explores the knowledge you really need to play a role in creating a first year experience that is safe, fun, and positive AND that is free from sexual assault.

1) Understand the problem before you even get to campus. You might have heard about campus rape through media coverage of stories like Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” performance art piece. Or you might have watched “The Hunting Ground,” or even seen one of the White House’s star-studded “It’s On Us” PSAs. Statistics show that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men experience sexual assault while they’re at college. This makes it a big problem facing students, parents, and faculty alike. It’s everyone’s problem, and you can be part of the solution. It’s especially a problem in first year. The first few weeks of college are when a majority of rapes are committed, often against first year students. It’s such a problem that violence prevention experts have named this high-risk time: “the red zone.”

2) Ditch victim-blaming. Campus sexual assault is almost always more than an alcohol-fueled misunderstanding. For example, female first year students are often specifically targeted by upperclassmen who use alcohol or peer pressure as a tool to take advantage. While it’s important to practice risk-reduction measures like the good- ol’ buddy system, don’t fall into the trap of placing the blame on someone who has been victimized by a person who made the choice to assault someone. Speak up when others engage in this sort of victim-blaming behavior. Make it clear that no one is ever “asking for it.”

3) Recognize that there’s more to sexual violence than rape. It can even include some the comparatively small issues we experience daily. Sexual violence includes anything from harassment, catcalling, stalking, spreading rumors, and cyber-bullying to physical violence, unwanted sexual contact, and attempted sexual assault, as well as completed rape. It’s important to make this connection early on in your academic career so that you can recognize and interrupt various forms of violence, and so that you can set clear boundaries as to what is acceptable at your school, or in your dorm, house, or organization.

4) Don’t buy all the hype about college. We’ve all seen movies and heard about websites like Total Frat Move that glorify and exaggerate what college is all about (getting laid … right?). Be critical of the media you consume, and set your expectations accordingly, and realistically. It’s perfectly okay to want to experiment–if it is consensual, mutual, and at the pace, place, and time you want to. And it is equally okay if you don’t want to!

5) Fill the gaps in your sex education. Unfortunately, many first years don’t have adequate, informative, and non-judgmental sex ed, or any education around healthy relationships, whether in school or at home. This means they’ve learned about sex from places that aren’t necessarily giving them the best information. Think porn, or peers who are equally confused. This is normal, and many schools are now offering presentations and trainings on sexual assault prevention, gender norms and roles, how to have healthy and safer sex, consent, and more. Seek out resources on your campus or in your community to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.

6) Consent. Consent. Consent. Consent can be hard to navigate, especially with all the pressures that come with being new on campus. So ask for it. Respect the answer you’re given. Consent can be sexy–but even when it isn’t, it’s absolutely necessary.

7) Orientation can’t teach you everything. In fact, it’s often a blur of information overload as various aspects of campus life compete for your attention. It can certainly take more than a week to feel oriented on campus. Information about important resources should not be tacked on to a lecture on where to do your laundry and never addressed again. Successful orientation programs are engaging, memorable, and continue beyond the first days of college. Take the time to learn about and familiarize yourself with the resources available to survivors of sexual assault on campus, and find ways you can provide support. Don’t underestimate the power of knowledge, whether to support a friend or push for a culture of accountability and respect.


8) Find and build your own community. A fresh start can be liberating, but sometimes the lack of a familiar support system can lead to feeling isolated or lonely, especially after facing violence. Whether or not you have or will experience sexual assault, it’s important to find communities on campus–clubs, activities, sports teams, or whatever else–that are safe and happy places. Those niches won’t just enrich your college experience. With a safe and respectful culture, these groups can provide support and care to its members who need it. 

#Chatbreak is a monthly Twitter chat series that explores connections between campus culture and sexual violence. Join the conversation on the first Thursday of every month at 2pm ET @BreakthroughUS, or join the Facebook conversation here.

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    Rebecca Goldfarb Terry

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