Navigating Graduate School As A Survivor Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. The anonymous author is a Ph.D. student at a large public research university.

Sexual Violence and Graduate School

I was an excellent student before I was raped.

As a child, I was above average in school. My books were a place to hide, and my teachers were a consistent source of support. My self-worth was intertwined with my performance in the classroom. School was where I felt confident and safe. I excelled.

After junior year of college, I became a person who could not concentrate and was chronically absent from class. I was angry, demanding and inflexible. I do not remember sleeping. I sometimes cried in closets. I lost friends. I stared out of the window during class. I struggled with substance abuse. That perfect student was gone.

In therapy, I often refer to myself before my trauma as “she/her” — as if I were a completely different person. It is the only way that I can think about it without losing my mind. I write this without hyperbole.

After being assaulted in college, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After years in therapy, trying different medications, learning to reinforce boundaries with friends and family (and even professors), I am finally making lasting progress.

Now, as a Ph.D. student at a different institution, I am not standing on top of the parking garage, contemplating stepping off of the edge. I have not had a nightmare in a while, though I still have issues sleeping through the night. These days, I am fairly consistent with my work. I am able to talk about my research without crippling anxiety.

But some of the old challenges remain, while new challenges that are unique to grad school have emerged. Sometimes I feel like a fraud because my department admitted her, but they got me instead.

On Being a Survivor in Grad School

According to the Department of Justice, 18 percent of women in the United States have reported being raped in their lifetime. In 2006, 5 percent of all college women reported being raped. When other forms of sexual assault are included, this number increases to one in four undergraduate women. These statistics do not include survivors who do not identify as women, although studies show transgender students and nonbinary individuals have even higher levels of sexual assault.

But even though there are so many survivors, we don’t seem to have space in higher education. Despite knowing my history, my college professor once embarrassed me by publicly making fun of how zoned out I was in class. In graduate school, a student called me “lazy” and “full of excuses.” Another faculty member told me that they kept it together despite their life-threatening disease, so I should also get it together. Due to my disability, I have experienced public shaming, condescending lectures and slights against my character. It is all very defeating.

I often wish I were her, not me. She would have been so much better at grad school; she would never receive these triggering comments. There would have been a little bit more space for her.

There is no space for me. There is sympathy, but no understanding. There is only critique and an immense pressure to perform like the students without my disability. I find myself begging faculty members to have faith in me and apologizing for things that are outside of my control.

I feel ashamed of my disability. I wish it did not exist. Sometimes, I wish I did not exist.

The typical down-and-out feelings are easier for someone without mental-health challenges to process. When you are a survivor of sexual assault, the typical trials and tribulations of grad school life trigger feelings of shame, guilt, worthlessness and helplessness. I get triggered, and it is a chain reaction, but I am getting better at managing it. And just to be clear: my disorder makes me stronger and more capable than most people. Even when I do spiral into a shame hole and fall into a 14-hour depression nap, I am still strong.

Even on my worst day, I know deep down that I am extraordinary. It takes a commitment to self, patience and compassion to heal from trauma. Most important, recovery requires support from professionals, family, friends and even institutions.

Offering Support

So, how can we make higher education more supportive for sexual assault survivors?

Besides the obvious (stop sexual violence), that’s a hard question to answer. In general, faculty members must have a better understanding of mental-health challenges among their students. When students disclose their disability, faculty members often avoid asking further questions in an effort to be respectful and avoid extending the conversation. I have experienced that, but I have pushed against their discomfort to specifically disclose that I suffer from PTSD. It is not enough to comply with disability accommodations. Faculty members need a general understanding of mental health and how they can avoid triggering students.

Faculty members need to understand depression and anxiety, as they are often consequences of sexual assault. It does not take much time to read up on how these challenges affect students. A quick search (“depression in students”) will return a wealth of information on this subject, although with few suggestions for what educators can do to assist struggling graduate students.

An article by Rachel Adams highlights two important things: 1) students with depression often disappear instead of reach out for help, and 2) due to the stigmas of mental illness and disabilities, many students do not receive a diagnosis or disability accommodation. With that in mind, graduate advisers must take initiative. Although few students will explicitly disclose being a survivor of sexual assault, the subsequent depression and anxiety are more easily recognizable. I am at my best when my adviser is attentive, suggesting breaks and offering advice and reassurance. Anxiety causes me to put off work due to a debilitating need for perfection, but maintaining communication and scheduling weekly meetings has helped me keep me accountable.

Graduate advisers should explicitly tell students to fight the urge to vanish. If you notice that behavior, take initiative and recommend university counseling and disability services. I know that you have a million projects, but it is your job to keep up with your students. Schedule weekly meetings, send emails and advise them on how to balance work and life. I have found the worst thing about being a survivor is feeling alone.

As survivors, we carry the guilt and shame of what happened to us. In academe, people speak in frustrating, roundabout ways. I am not surprised that the conversation on sexual assault in academe is limited. The burden of this conversation falls on the shoulders of those of us who have experienced it — and some of us are just trying to get to tomorrow. It is hard to talk about because it makes me feel vulnerable and unsafe. It is a deeply personal conversation to have in public.

I do not know which is scarier to reveal — my trauma or my experience with my department. That tells me this conversation is absolutely necessary. If I have learned anything from my recovery, it is what you avoid discussing is often the subject that most urgently needs to be addressed.