Thirty-one years after it was founded, the Boston College Women’s Center is experiencing a growth spurt of sorts. The recent name change from Women’s Resource Center to the simpler Women’s Center is indicative of a maturation and expansion of the institution that has provided support, information, and programming to BC students for several decades now.
If there is a face to put to these changes, it is Rachel DiBella’s. She is fresh off a growth spurt of a more professional nature, having been named the University’s first-ever Assistant Director for Sexual Violence Prevention and Response after serving two years as a graduate assistant for the Women’s Center. She assumed her new role in June and has since then spoken to over 600 members of the BC community about the best ways to reduce the incidence of sexual assault on campus and respond effectively when it does occur—evidence of the more visible and proactive role the Women’s Center hopes to take this year.
Last spring, Vice President for Student Affairs Barbara Jones reorganized the division and made the Women’s Center its own freestanding department in order to increase its visibility and reinforce its significance to the community, according to Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Katie O’Dair. Around the same time, the “resource” was dropped from the name with the aim of accurately reflecting the breadth of programs and support available at the center.
“I think removing ‘resource’ takes away the assumption that what we’re doing is medicalizing women’s issues,” said Director of the Women’s Center Katie Dalton.
Dalton, who has been director since 2007, used the elevation of the center to a freestanding department and the appointment of DiBella to make this summer a time for reflection on what the Women’s Center has been in the past and what it wants to be moving forward. A “thinking group” of 13 faculty and staff from across campus met during the summer months to re-envision and solidify the mission of the center. Dalton broke down the resulting vision into four sections: Being highly accessible for all members of the community; building a network of faculty, staff, and alumni to support and challenge women on campus; empowering female students to embrace their potential and become leaders; and ending sexual assault on campus.
The final pillar of the vision is where DiBella’s work is focused. A 2008 graduate of Framingham State College, Dibella has spent nearly her entire career focused on aiding victims of sexual assault. She worked for several years at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, a nonprofit that provides free legal representation for victims of rape and sexual assault.
“It was really illuminating to be working with and advocating for survivors in a community-based setting,” DiBella said.
She came to BC in 2012 to earn a master’s in clinical social work, during which she did her clinical placements at the Sexual and Domestic Violence Program at Newton Wellesley Hospital and the Violence Recovery Program at Fenway Community Health.
“Rachel is known in the community and so well-connected to the breadth of resources that we have around Boston, and that also makes her such a great resource for students,” Dalton said.
While she was a master’s student, DiBella worked as the graduate assistant for BC’s Sexual Assault Network, which is one of the many programs she has plans for in her new role as assistant director for Sexual Violence Prevention and Response.
She hopes to professionalize the network by providing more extensive training to the advocates that take phone calls. She also hopes to move away from the historically volunteer-oriented nature of the network.
“This year there will be more training, the training will be more in-depth, and we are actually excited that this is no longer solely a volunteer position,” DiBella said. “We’re able to actually provide a stipend to advocates who are active on the hotline in order to deepen the investment and retention in being a member of the network.”
She is also looking to work more visibly with departments and organizations around campus in order to display and celebrate the many partnerships of which the Women’s Center is a part. To this end, the Center is cohosting an event with the athletic department on Oct. 15 that will feature as a guest speaker Katie Hnida, the first female Division I college football player to score points and a survivor of sexual assault.
Certain changes that DiBella and the Women’s Center made have already been put into effect: Freshmen all had to complete an online sexual assault education course before arriving on campus, and this year, welcome week featured “Are You Getting the Signal?”—an improv show that educates students about the issues of sexual violence on college campuses.
The class of 2018 will also be the first class to have all of its members go through Bystander Awareness training by the end of their freshman year. Most will participate during their second semester through residence hall programs, but members of Courage to Know may go through the program this fall.
The decision to have most students participate in the spring is a deliberate one based on years of research conducted by the Women’s Center itself. For three years, the center gave three assessments to Bystander participants: one before the training, one immediately after, and one three months later. The responses to these assessments, which gauged things such as attitudes toward sexual assault and willingness to intervene, concluded that the first semester of freshman year is usually too early for the training to be as effective as possible.
“We’re looking to build awareness of students at the onset of their college experience but at the same time be conscious of where programs are most effectively placed,” Dalton said.
The other programs and developments of the Women’s Center and the University as a whole in regard to sexual assault are similarly intentional and based on research conducted by the Women’s Center itself, national research, or best practices. DiBella’s position was the result of a committee formed four years ago to identify better ways of responding to victims of sexual assault.
In April, after several high-profile incidents of sexual assault on college campuses and subsequent mishandling of investigations by university administrations, the White House released a report giving guidance to colleges on how best to prevent and respond to sexual violence. BC was already employing many of the methods suggested by the report.
“I think it speaks volumes about how proactive Boston College has been that even when I came here [in 2012] and now that a lot of that White House guidance and legislation has come back—the research that it cites and the best practices it cites—a lot of it is stuff that we are already doing, and it’s using research that we’ve been using a really long time,” DiBella said. “BC has been uniquely proactive.”
O’Dair, Dalton, and DiBella work together with many other partners to ensure that BC is work towards a safe campus.
O’Dair was part of a team last year that developed a sheet with information about resources available to students who have been assaulted and suggestions on how to respond to a student who has been affected by sexual assault. All faculty and staff members were given a copy of this sheet.
A 17-person steering committee that began meeting over the summer in response to the White House report reviewed the University’s policy on sexual assault and initiated an overhaul by the Dean of Students’ Office.
Now students can find clear definitions of terms related to sexual assault in the policy. In addition, the University has moved from a hearing board model to a single investigator model for students who file a complaint concerning sexual assault with the Dean’s Office.
O’Dair stressed that the topic of sexual assault on campus is not one that can be addressed by a single department or office.
“We are very lucky to have great collaborations and good will and ultimately, people here at BC who care a lot about our students and who want to reduce the incidence of sexual violence,” she said.
DiBella’s and the Women’s Center’s goal is to use this interest and enthusiasm on the part of the community to ensure that any and all victims of sexual assault are met with an appropriate, informed, and compassionate response, no matter who they turn to.
“We don’t care where they’re approaching, we want every student here to get the same experience and we want that to be a full experience,” Dalton said.
Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor