Information about Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates from their homepage. For more information, visit SAPA.CMICH.EDU
As Domestic Violence Awareness Month passes (October 2016), I take the time to reflect on an influential interview about a transformational department that has not only been an innovation on students in the Central Michigan University community, but has also made a difference around the world. Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates, or SAPA for short, is a confidential source that helps survivors through any form of sexual aggression including but not limited to stalking, sexual harassment, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault. SAPA is available to students through a confidential support line (989-774-CALL), online chat, and direct in-person services which are available 24/7 to help survivors. One of the most amazing aspects of this organization not only includes the extensive, over 40+ hours of training each member of SAPA receives, but also how the University grants this organization confidentiality to do their work effectively and for the betterment of survivors.
As I look into the student affairs profession, I look to make sure I see all sides of student development that makes the campus experience safe, meaningful, and influential on students. For one of my courses, I began to look more into SAPA to not only find out more, but to hear more about the amazing impact this organization has had on the community. I was given the opportunity to interview Brooke Oliver-Hempenstall, the Director of SAPA at Central Michigan University. Originally before publishing this article, I wanted to take parts of the interview and write it like an editorial with parts of the interview. However, the interview between Brooke and myself was so passionate and natural, I feel it is best to leave it in the question and answer format below to show all pure aspects of the conversation.
Please feel free to read about SAPA below through Brooke’s eyes followed by my learning outcomes from this conversation.
Michael: Thank you very much for meeting with me Brooke. Please tell me about yourself and your experiences that brought you here.
Brooke: “Well, I never intended to come here. I originally was planning on going to Arizona State University. However, I changed my mind at the last minute. School started on a Monday, I called CMU on a Tuesday, and decide to go to CMU that day. It was close to my hometown, which definitely was a benefit. I moved into Robinson on a Saturday, and suddenly Central became it for me.
During my first year, I got involved with SAPA (second class overall, 1998). Honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and was here for five years. I tried accounting, but I fucking hated it. Eventually, I decided to go with a major with psych in family studies, and a minor in substance abuse.
During my time, SAPA changed my life. No matter how difficult or overwhelming I might be attached to this work, I loved it! Finally, I graduated in May of 2001. I was scared, and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I was good at SAPA, but did not want to do the ResLife route in Higher Education.
Right before 9/11, I applied for jobs and worked at a domestic abuse shelter. I went to Law School (Cooley Law School) and went to school on the weekends and summers for two years. My last year during my internship for Law School, I realized I fucking hated it. I quit because I only wanted to do prosecution, not the other stuff that came with it.
I dropped out on Friday, January 6th of 2006, felt good, and called the counseling center program at CMU for the Counseling Master’s program. I came back to CMU in August 2006 after taking a short break and graduated in December 2008 while still being an advocate in Gaylord.
SAPA used to be funded through a grant, and I slid into the SAPA Dedicated Counselor position for SAPA until April 2011 when the grant was not going to be renewed for the position. The program has always been funded through the school, but the SAPA Dedicated Counselor was not at the time. I left CMU and began to work at Child Protective Services for nine weeks because I was not a fan of the work there.
After that gig, I became a Director of a Women’s Safe Home and Shelter in Grayling called River House until September 2013. Eventually, I came back to CMU and eventually stepped into Director role for SAPA (Interim currently). I want to make SAPA a permanent Director position, but I have to say I am truly amazed with how the experience has gone up to this point.”
Michael: From your point of view, what is one of the biggest problems facing college students today?
Brooke: “Well, that is a great question. For the broad scope: You still have students with issues of depression, anxiety, and adjustment. But I think more folks nationally are becoming more aware with mental health, are happening to be diagnosed already, and trauma especially with SAPA with the work I do. They are at a place where they deal, process, and go through trauma currently. They all can coexist.
For the safety and the well being, you always have to be mindful of self-care and self-harm. I like to tell the SAPA’s , ‘Confidentiality is like a mini-Las Vegas in the way that what happens here stays here, meaning if someone is telling you something, it remains confidential. However, it cannot if it comes to harm to others or if little ones are being abused or neglected.’ It is becoming more recognized in regards to sexual assault trauma and DV (Domestic Violence) with how pervasive this is.”
Michael: It sounds like there has been a lot of aspects that go into the history and development of SAPA overall. How has the University supported you and others alike in your position to succeed?
Brooke: “I cannot say enough about how the University for nineteen years has been qualifying SAPA as a confidential resource. For us to do our job in regards to working with SAPA and the services they provide, for the University since 1997 to give that privilege to these students, is remarkable. A while back, Title IX issues were not under the scrutiny they are now since the 2011 Dear Colleague letter came out and issues pertaining to sexual aggression have become heavily focused upon nationally within the university environment. It was a different world, and for the school to value the importance of what advocacy is and means to folks and to offer that, and even if we had to piece or way through it, providing the confidentiality has been the best gift especially since this topic has become a hot issue for folks.
The relationships in the University between ResLife especially with confidentiality, and to be able to work together, has been amazing because these are not easy issues to work around. There has always been that amazing consistency.”
Michael: Looking into the world of higher education, one can see how safe spaces is changing the environment of diverse students. Some universities have released statements openly telling the world that they will not be providing safe spaces for students anymore for any real life situation or social issues. What are your thoughts on this?
Brooke: “It’s not about coddling students; it’s about knowing that triggers can put someone back into the time when the first events occurred. When you are triggered, your body has the same action that has happened during that event.
Essentially, whenever we talk about violence in these regards, we need to remember, we all have a common goal just to start with. That is why we provide safe spaces for people. We did this for SAPA because there was a need, and this was the right thing to do. The starting of this was so genuine and came from a place of needing. Our services have developed, adjusted, and tweaked because our student advocates are hearing what students’ need, and start adjusting.”
Michael: In your field, there definitely is a lot of give and take that goes into your work as you work with students, survivors, and work to change life on a daily basis. What would you define as proper self-care in your line of work?
Brooke: “With life and this line of work, it used to be running. It all depends personally with the different stages that I have been with my personal life. I have to take healthy self-care moments. They look a little different. But my first year, I did not practice self-care. I dove into the work world full time and over seventy hours a week, and I was not healthy. I was burning out. In the field I work in, folks do burn out. And their ability to have passion and empathy can fade away. This is not the type of work where that works to not be passionate and supportive. It is about letting folks know they have options, rights, and control to do anything besides what they are told.
Healthy self-care is paramount to do this work long term. Since I have been volunteering with SAPA since I was twenty, whether it is with running or driving, take your vacations. I never get sick, but you need to take your own fucking health days. This cannot be your life, and I am glad that people can be passionate. But if you are not in a good place, you cannot be in a good space to help others. That is why I do not mind the commute from Gaylord to Central everyday because that is even my time for self-care. And I don’t feel bummed to go to work. This work I find very uplifting because I get to work with folks and even though it might be the worst time of their lives, I have seen the light when they get to that place of their healthy balance and it is very incredible.
There is always a need for help. There are forty plus shelters in this state that need help, volunteers, pillows (because people will take them when they leave shelters), and people to volunteer to help with crisis lines. Even as simple as CMU and SAPA partnering with Women’s Aid and the Tribe to collaboratively work together, it shows that we all have a common goal.”
Michael: In regards to the University, What are your favorite things about CMU as a whole?
Brooke: “What I love about SAPA and CMU is that the training could not happened if we did not have our alum coming back. Last year, we had over one hundred alum come back for those training weekends. We need extra folks, but people who are well versed in these areas. Our alumni have been truly amazing. That is something that CMU cannot fix for me; the alumni are something that we need. Even if we had a ton of money for this, I need alumni. We still have folks coming back from the first year in 1997 and they come back with all different skill sets. They all come back from different fields, or even for certain time periods.
And my favorite moment is last year, it was Steven’s first year not being a Director. The rookies go through a clapping tunnel created by the alumni, and they did the same thing for Steven. This common goal with SAPA is still carried on through our alumni and for people at CMU.
Currently, we are trying to create a SAPA alumni survey. We want to see the results of SAPA on people’s lives years after they leave CMU. We also want to see how SAPAs network with alumni.
With Central, it’s never been about “don’t report” like it can be with other college campuses. What’s reportable for Cleary is very specific. But in all the years I have been here, I have never felt that we needed to be hushed because the school does not want that stuff coming out. If anything, since the 1990’s, it has been about creating an atmosphere that makes people feel comfortable with reporting and speaking, but it is their choice and there’s resources for whatever choice they want to make. Or pick none: That’s a choice, too. It’s always been about doing what’s right at CMU, especially with the SAPA program.”
When talking about higher education, the one thing that keeps people remaining in and excited about the field is passion. Brooke absolutely displays this through her commitment and willingness to help members of the community. From this interview, I learned the following outcomes that can be remembered for future development:
- The importance of self care and commitment to the work no matter what field you are a part of
- The impact confidentiality and University support can have on a person’s work
- The importance to make sure students know their resources on campus
- The essential impact SAPA has created on the community, and even the world and CMU abroad
- The power of connecting with others to learn, create, and empower student development
SAPA continues to make the community aware through programming, meeting with organizations, and with the guidance of Brooke along with other SAPA staff members. Thank you for the work you all do to make CMU a better place!