By ES HETHCOX
A trickle of female students amble into a warm room where a swirl of incense fills the air and a selection of maroon upholstered chairs surrounds a table covered with coloring books, glitter jars, stress balls and beaded thingamajigs.
As the students nervously settle into their chosen seat and carefully avoid eye contact, their discomfort and hesitation hang heavily above the circle of chairs.
Most of these students have never been in a room like this.
The space is designated for members of Survivor’s Group, a special therapy series designed by the University of Mary Washington’s Talley Center for Counseling Services to aide survivors of sexual assault.
The #MeToo movement, which has swept social media over the last four months, galvanizing an international crusade against sexual assault and harassment, was not yet a movement when the Survivor’s Group began meeting in the fall of 2015. Led and designed by Talley Center staff therapists Melissa Palguta and Catherine Smith, the group has provided counseling and a confidential safe haven for more than 20 sexual assault survivors on campus every semester since then.
Sexual assault is a continuing issue in the United States, with 1 in 5 women experiencing sexual assault during their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Of these victims, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), females between the ages of 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault. Women between the ages of 18-24 are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual assault, according to RAINN.
These age demographics drastically overlap with the typical years that women attend college, and if the assault happens before they go to college, they still have to deal with the aftermath of their trauma. Increasingly colleges are offering free counseling and resources to students and many survivors of sexual assault are turning to therapy centers on campus’ for support.
The Talley Center is one of them, offering a variety of services such as one-on-one counseling, crisis services and consultation for reporting an assault. While these resources greatly benefit survivors with much-needed support, the Survivor’s Group offers something unique: the chance to interact with others who have endured similar experiences.
Palguta, who holds a doctorate in psychology in clinical psychology from the University of Indianapolis, believes the group not only provides survivors with methods to cope with trauma, but also offers a safe place to talk, heal and foster empowerment through interaction with other group members.
In this safe place, members of the group have the comfort of knowing that whatever is discussed in the group setting is confidential. Participating group members all sign confidentiality agreements, and the group leaders do not report or discuss anything that is said in the space outside of the room, unless doing so is necessary to protect someone’s life or immediate safety. Though confidentially is how this group operates, the three group members quoted in this piece agreed to release their identity in order to show the student body what services are available.
The choice to share
With sessions meeting once a week for the duration for the semester, members are encouraged to stay for the first three sessions before they decide if they will continue the group. This decision lies in the structure of the group, where the first three sessions of the group are dedicated to teaching the members coping techniques for dealing with trauma on a daily basis. After those sessions are complete, group members have the opportunity to share their stories. However, Smith and Palguta stress that members are not expected or required to disclose in the group.
“We know that sometimes survivors are worried about being forced to do something or to take a certain course of action,” Palguta said. “Members of the group are not going to be forced to do anything. The choice is always going to be theirs.”
For the group members that choose to share, Smith and Palguta are legally required to keep everything—other than immediate safety concerns—confidential. Due to concerns for student safety, UMW faculty and staff are required to report a student’s sexual assault to the Office of Title IX. The Talley Center, due to its status as a counseling and therapy center, is the one resource on campus where the student has full authority in their decision to report or not.
One previous group member who experienced the safety of disclosing is Emily Ainsworth, a communication and digital studies major graduating in the spring.
“Group allowed me to heal at my own pace and I felt like I was never pressured to disclose,” Ainsworth said. “I was able to come to grips with what happened to me and the group was a good support system that helped empower me.”
Path to healing
Even if a group member decides never to disclose during the entire length of the group, they still have the opportunity to give advice to fellow survivors and learn ways to cope with their trauma.
Sierra McCahon, a graduating senior majoring in psychology, walked away from the group with a new perspective on her journey to healing.
“It changed my life,” McCahon said. “I now don’t carry shame around with me and I feel like a survivor. I don’t feel that I have to hide my assault or that it defines me. I feel that I am a stronger person now because of this group.
UMW theatre and history sophomore Ashleigh DiBenedetto has attended the group twice and said she benefited from the space created by Palguta and Smith, who has a master’s in community counseling from Argosy University and is pursuing an educational doctorate in counselor education and supervision.
“I was finally able to delve into exactly what happened to me and was able to disclose for the first time what really happened,” DiBenedetto said. “I was able to finally say it out loud.”
Open to all
As their sixth semester commences, the Survivor’s Group will be opening soon to all UMW students who are survivors of sexual assault. Smith and Palguta are currently preparing to meet their next group of survivors, and will be solidifying meeting times in the next few weeks.
The winter session of this group will possibly begin running in the middle of February, and is still open for any UMW student who wishes to join. Once the group has completed its second session, it is closed to new members for the remainder of the semester.
For students who are interested in joining the group and working toward healing, Smith and Palguta have a special message for you.
“You are not alone,” Palguta said. “There are a variety of resources available to you, but it is always your choice when, if and how to utilize them.”
“Please reach out for help, we’re sincerely here to help you heal and become yourself again,” Smith said.
For more information, please contact the Talley Center at (540) 654-1053 or visit them in Lee Hall, room 106 or Tyler House.