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Op-Eds

When Harvard Helped Me

Editors’ Note: This op-ed, which describes the author’s experience with sexual assault, refers to another op-ed titled “Dear Harvard: You Win,” published in The Crimson on March 31, 2014.

I am an alumna of Harvard College. When I read the recent op-ed written by a current student struggling with the aftermath of sexual assault at Harvard, I found her story to be nothing short of tragic. I support the calls to action that it and so many other stories have generated, not only at Harvard but also at colleges around the country. At the same time, I was inspired to share my own story.

While at Harvard, I was also sexually assaulted. But I felt that Harvard supported, defended, and cared for me throughout the entire ordeal. Undoubtedly, there should be far less of a discrepancy in victim outcomes and in how sexual assaults are handled at the College.

However, as this new conversation regarding sexual assault at Harvard begins, I believe it is important to acknowledge that sometimes (I would hope more often than not, but have no way of knowing) the College gets it right.

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It was the fall of my freshman year. I fell asleep in a friend’s room and woke up shortly thereafter to a third person in the room touching me. I later learned that the technical term for what he did is digital rape.

The deeply shadowed, slightly backlit, impossible to identify, but distinctly male figure bolted as soon as he realized I was awake and looking at him. I was so shocked I couldn’t even speak. I bolted upright, gathered my things, and fled. The friend whose room I had been in tried to follow me, only barely understanding what had happened, but I ran away pursuing the singular mission of getting back to the comfort of my own dorm. There, in tears, I revealed the incident to one of my roommates. Less than half an hour later, at about 3:30 a.m., an assistant dean of freshmen accompanied by a Harvard University police officer knocked at my door.

After I fled his room, my friend, a trustworthy and honorable guy, had reported the incident. Harvard reacted immediately. An investigation began.

The administrators and HUPD officers whom I spoke with that night and maintained contact with for months and even years following the event could not have been more gentle or more kind. I opted out of a Cambridge police report for privacy reasons. The investigation continued via the Administrative Board and HUPD. Meanwhile, I walked around the campus in a horrified daze, afraid that every man I passed had been my assailant, since I had not been able to see his face. In the days and weeks following my assault, I came to truly understand the meaning of terror.

ID card records soon revealed the likely culprit. He lived in my dorm. He had been one of a group of us hanging out earlier that evening. He had followed my friend and me to the building where the assault occurred, swiping in a few minutes after we did. He had taken advantage of an unlocked door. However, my inability to identify him and his refusal to admit to the act left the Ad Board unable to “convict” him beyond a reasonable doubt.

Confidentially, the assistant dean of freshmen on my case told me the Ad Board believed he was guilty. They moved him to a different dorm and banned him from ever entering mine. When one of my roommates familiar with the case saw him in my dorm a short time later, he was forced to leave the College for a year.

As all of this proceeded, I met regularly with my assistant dean, who kept me as apprised as possible regarding the investigation. She welcomed me into the comfort of her home. She gave me literature about on-campus organizations related to sexual assault awareness. She offered to help me set up counseling sessions. She gave me her personal phone number and told me I could knock on her door or call her whenever I needed to. Once, she even baked chocolate chip cookies for me. I did not feel alone. I felt supported and protected; Harvard had come to my aid.

Of course, as any victim would, I still suffered from sudden moments of fear and, albeit undiagnosed, lingering depression. But, I felt that Harvard provided me with a support system and a safe zone in which to make the slow progress towards recovery.

Every victim should feel that way.

Every sexual assault is different. Every victim’s story is unique. In my case, nearly 14 years ago, Harvard stepped up. I now look back on that time with gratitude. Without the actions of my assistant dean of freshmen, the Ad Board, and HUPD, I don't know if I could have made it through that year, or the next one.

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