After interviewing campus professionals whose work is directly related to interacting with victim/survivors of gender-based violence, I really wanted to interview a campus professional who was just as passionate about helping victim/survivors, but whose work wasn’t directly with them.
Queue in Molly McCourt.
At the time of this interview, Molly served as the Assistant Chair and Undergraduate Advisor of Women’s & Gender Studies at UWM. While she no longer works in this position, she is still devoted to empowering students and raising sexual assault awareness in any way she can.
Mia: So, can you please tell me your name, your title at UWM, and what you do?
Molly: My name is Molly McCourt. I currently serve as the Women and Gender’s Studies assistant chair and undergraduate advisor. On a given day, (It’s hard to talk about pre and post pandemic world), but I offer student and department support in the ways of advising and managing curriculum within the department. Also, just making sure that people know that I am always, as much as I am able, available to be an advocate and support person for them with WGS and women and gender issues throughout campus.
Mia: Thank you for letting us know a little bit more about what you do. I think it’s always great to hear that academic advisors are also humans who care beyond the advising side of things.
Molly: Yes, absolutely.
Mia: My next question is why did you choose your current position at UWM?
Molly: So, the position I am in right now really offers a really unique platform. In my past experience within UWM, I was a graduate student and also working within media and gender studies. From there, it’s been really cool to transition, after I graduated, into an academic department but also have so many opportunities for advising. Working with undergrads is something that I really enjoyed working as a TA. I really found that a lot of gender issues exist outside of the classroom and how much I felt drawn to show my support and find ways to help and connect students to resources. Through my assistant chair and advising position, its been great to help students navigate their academic path and ask them what is going on outside. It really does encompass the whole person. Showing support through asking questions that are not only academic but also about their lives and all the ways the identify (as a student employee, as maybe a parent, as someone who is taking care of family, or as someone who is finding out their identities). The role I am in is just a really great opportunity for showing support in those ways and finding out more about students at UWM which is really exciting.
Mia: Thank you for sharing. My follow up question is how can your office be an office that supports survivors?
Molly: The first thing that comes to mind is how great it has been this academic year, since this is my first year working within Women and Gender’s Studies. We have created this really cool community that is made up of our TA/mentor Katie Merkle, who also studies sexual violence within the institution and also, our TA’s, instructors, and faculty members. We really have come together to try to find out ways to make our support known for finding out the best ways to report and empower victim/survivors of sexual assault, especially in the university and however you identify. But, especially gearing it towards students because we have found that there are ways it can be confusing when it doesn’t have to be. The first thing we made sure we did was making it clear in our syllabi. Like here is how, here are the ways to do it, and here are the resources you have. We talked about it at multiple department meetings. We wanted to make it clear that it should be more than just a link to report it. It should be here is the process, here are the resources for you, here is how I play a role, and just being as clear as possible. We wanted to put it at the forefront as opposed to tucking it in the back of a syllabus, making sure students know here is what we care about and it’s you. That is the first thing as far as the WGS department goes. There are so many great things that instructors do on their own volition that I just joined in on in conversations. I have been really lucky to be a part of the ways they approach certain topics in the courses they are teaching. So, a lot of our instructors that do intro to WGS have a unit on gender-based violence. And a couple of them make sure to ask students “Will this be okay? Please come to me if not” and I’ve been really pleased to see how many people are willing to accommodate and create new curriculum. So instead of talking about sexual violence in an explicit way, they will talk about consent because it may trigger survivors’ mental health in the classroom. Obviously, that is the last thing we want to do. So those have been really great things to see in the classroom as well as the documents we give out in the classroom. The other great thing is being involved as a staff advisor with PASA, Panthers Against Sexual Assault as well as Women’s March UWM. Within my roles, it’s been great to just kind of serve as an advisor and also just be there to touch base and help with certain programming. Also, just knowing that as a student org, they always have a home base within the WGS department as needed. That’s something I really like being able to provide.
Mia: Thank you for explaining all of that. I think that your role is really important in that you are doing the groundwork with students. Some other entities on campus, they don’t really get to see how things play out for students in the classroom or in the advisor’s office. It’s great to hear that the support is there through your department and that they’re doing the good work over there. So, I’m really glad. My next question is what does Take Back the Night mean to you as an academic advisor?
Molly: That’s a big question. Because it can go in so many ways and it’s so important. In my undergraduate and graduate experience (especially undergrad), is when I first came into contact with Take Back the Night so it’s hard for me to think about it without having so many wonderful and complicated emotions boiling up. And so, as a campus professional, I look at it (and again, I keep harping on ways to support and be an advocate) as a stage for students on campus to find or discover their voice and also claim their story and find power in it. So, I think there is something so fierce about that. Being able to say this is our time. Taking up the space, especially the physical space, was something that was hard this time around. It’s so powerful to see a picture of a crowd and to see signs that have such strong words on them about survivors just really taking up space. The great thing is again, like you were saying before, it’s great to do that in a social media campaign too. So, I love that there was that option and breaking it up in two parts was genius. As a campus professional, there’s a part of me that was definitely a little sad to not be able to witness that for the first time in this role. To see it on campus, the programming of it, and how it goes because like I said, I have other universities in my past to kind of compare it to in my head. But as someone who works on campus and always wants to do my part in building a stage or holding a microphone for those voices, when I think of Take Back the Night that the best way I can put it. Unapologetically making your voice heard. I want to be able to help students do that and I love that there is a community of other UWM professionals that want to do the same within their different roles. I love that there is just a coalition of people bringing in their own talents and allowing the event to happen still with quarantine.
Mia: Thank you so much. That was such a heartwarming answer. So, you kind of already answered my next question, but I’ll still ask it. Why have you chosen to speak out during Take Back the Night?
Molly: Part of it is hard to articulate. And that is something I have found in this work every now and then. I have really kind of taken, when it comes to working within WGS and the advising role, finding ways to do outreach. It’s really clear to me, now more than ever. I am making it clear to others how standing up against sexual violence is something that I hold really dear and see as incredibly important work on a daily basis. Someone else asked me why sexual assault awareness month is important. And I said “It’s important that we raise awareness in this concentrated month but really every day of the year and every moment. Finding ways to see how we can resist and stand up against it when it comes to sexual violence.” So, I’m choosing to participate in Take Back the Night this way because it is one of the most powerful times within sexual assault awareness month and it deserves its space. I really want to make sure that it is clear how important it is to talk about it and that we can still find ways to take that one night full of energy and empowerment and really figure out how to spread it out in the whole year. It goes beyond your job. I believe there are ways for everyone to be an advocate. It can be not laughing at a joke if you work in a toxic environment. Realizing I can walk out of the room and then next time, you’ll say something so that someone doesn’t make another inappropriate joke. Those are ways that I see everyone making steps. Take back the Night is a big combination of it and we can figure out ways to spread it out. Does that make sense?
Mia: Yes, that made sense! Thank you for all of your thoughts! So, my next question is a little bit more of a question that survivors often ask themselves and I think campus professionals should consider these kinds of questions when interacting with survivors. The question is how do you feel about the label victim and survivor?
Molly: This is a great question. This question is very near and dear to me because in my past, I have studied words. I was an English major so word choice is really important in general but I definitely take it to heart. I have come to really embrace the victim/ survivor label. Label is not a great word. But in talking about the work I want to do and who I want to work for and serve, I found myself saying victim/survivor much more. Part of that is having the influence and mentorship of my colleague Katie Merkle, who has worked with victim/survivors as an advocate in her past and still continues that work today. We haven’t really had a conversation about it, but she modeled it and I found myself taking it on. I never felt right saying victim and I never wanted to make the step toward survivor. I actually serve as an on-call advocate through the Women’s Center in Waukesha and we had a lot of discussions about that too. Given the setting, how should we talk about these individuals? The first thing and strongest message was to see how they identify themselves. That’s a lesson everyone should take in any interactions. Being sensitive about your language. If someone is claiming their pronouns. If someone is claiming themselves to be a victim, then that’s where they are. If someone is claiming survivor, that’s also where they are. Being able to say victim/survivor kind of gives a space and recognizes that something wrong happened to them. It was not their fault. Survivor implies they are still working through it and they will be. They are still moving and it’s not going to define them. That’s been the journey for me. But I do find that being able to use victim/survivor makes me feel better than picking one or the other.
Mia: Yes, thank you for bringing that up. I think a lot of people are aware that with victim/survivors, the victim/survivor should be able to declare whatever they feel is right for them in the moment but no one ever really offers a solution to what they can refer to victim/survivors as before they do that. I think victim/survivor is a good solution to the issue people step around so thank you! My next question is what suggestions do you have to build a safer environment for survivors to come forward on campus?
Molly: Another really big and important question you pose, so thank you for that. I think there are multiple ways to look at this. One thing I am very proud and excited to share… There are lot of students in WGS that are pursuing this question in their work within campus life and their organizations We have one student who I have been working with this semester, who chose to pursue this as an independent study this past semester. She wanted to do a lot of student research holding focus groups and doing survivor interviews, but a lot of that changed after spring break because of having to be isolated. What was encouraging to me was that one of the things we can do as professionals is just to show that we are thinking about it and opening the door to navigate that. I think giving students agency is the most important step. But then making clear that you will not be doing this alone and that they are a priority. It’s not just something I am relegating. As an academic advisor, I don’t want students to think “oh it’s not your job, it’s above you” because to me, it’s why I am in this department. I am here in order to facilitate this. In the independent study, it’s all about making the reporting process more transparent and using student centered language to make it clear what needs to be done. Again, showing that the university is prioritizing this. I think that’s the hard part too. Sometimes people do just think “if we can’t do it right now, maybe in April we will show our support”. But again, there are students saying it is urgent now, which it is, to clarify this process and to make sure that students have the tools. So again, I think the University and the folks that work within it, in order to give autonomy to our students (especially to students who feel powerless because of something awful and that was out of their control), we need to make it a priority and we need to show that this fits within our jobs and what we do on a daily basis.
Mia: Thank you so much for bringing clarity to that side of student affairs and what is actually happening behind closed doors that students don’t necessarily get to see. I appreciate you for all of the hard work that you do in and the work your department is putting into advocating and supporting survivors. My next question is why is so important that we Take Back the Night during this pandemic?
Molly: Oh, man. It will always be important for sure. I think this pandemic has given us and presented so many new challenges and ways to think about how we used to do things, not just with Take Back the Night. But that’s kind of a blanket statement and I don’t think is very profound, it’s just what everyone is dealing with. So, when it comes to why it’s so important, (I’m afraid I don’t have a very original answer but), sadly, because sexual assault is still an issue that we need to grapple with. It’s very important to not just turn off any programming or awareness raising that was already scheduled. We need to find new ways to present it. Also, just to show that it doesn’t have to just be about gathering in a physical space. It can be about flooding social media with a certain message and that is really powerful, especially since we have the opportunity now with so many platforms to make things trend. To make people see things over and over. In some ways, with things like adds in Facebook, that can be super annoying. But with something like consciousness raising that can be really powerful and really effective. Again, even if it’s not the most positive at first, you know if someone is who isn’t that familiar with it keeps seeing the same message…they may very well be compelled to google something. That’s just one little step toward being more aware of something that is wrong with our world that we can work to make better when it comes to sexual violence. That’s one step we may not have gotten before and that’s one person’s life. So, I think it’s important to recalibrate right now and figure out how we can use the tools that we have in order to continue these kinds of raising awareness and educating as many as we can. It’s important because this issue still persists and we really need to find new ways to bring attention to it.
Mia: I couldn’t agree more in all that you said. I am also grateful that some of the offices are still running and still doing the programming that needs to be done for people during April and the rest of the semester to get people through. So, my last and final question is what is a final statement that you want students to know about your office and what you do?
Molly: That’s a hard one. If I could put it in a nutshell… the proverbial door is always open. It is still open. I would love to think that students don’t have to look at what floor they are on or what department they are in… in order to come to someone who works for the university that they can feel safe around. I think it’s getting better, but I can confidently say that if there is any student that has questions or may have concerns about a friend, classmate, or someone off campus. If they just want to talk about something. I am confident in saying that can come speak with someone in WGS and they can absolutely do that (I can say this with 100% confidence) with me. Now that door has changed to email or asking for maybe a teams meeting or phone call if they are more comfortable that way. It really does have to (I think my final thought is), it’s all about to you. It’s completely within your comfort and your power, whatever is best. Just know that we are here, and we are in your corner. We believe you, know that. If you choose to take steps to having a conversation or just asking for a resource, that is fine. You are under no obligation to do anything more for WGS. I just really want people to know there are multiple presences on campus and all they want to do is help. If it’s not clear, maybe they just don’t know how to communicate that yet or they are working on it. Within WGS, I am always doing that work. I always want to know how to help. I just shared with one of my colleagues recently that I think one of the hardest things about the pandemic is knowing that there might be students out there who used to just walk into my office and say “hey do you have a minute?” and it’s harder to do that if you are writing an email and requesting that phone call or meeting. So, it takes another step, but I completely understand how that’s different know. For me, it’s been really to know how to help. And I’m trying my best to let people know that I am here.
Mia: Thank you so much for that response. That gave me the warm fuzzies again! It’s so heartwarming to know that campus professionals are there and really do care beyond their role at the university. So, thank you for really expressing that in your response.
After the interview, my heart was really warmed. I think it’s important that students know that people are on their side and so willing to support them. And if they don’t need that support, it’s comforting to know that their friends who do will have someone.