Leaving Fear Out of the College Experience

04/13/2015 12:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015
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I learned so much in college. I was taught to be independent and to think for myself. I learned the geography of eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. I learned how to confidently present and defend a research thesis in front of a crowded room. I read great works of political leaders, philosophers, and scientists. I leapt through metaphorical open doors and embraced my freedom.

College can and should be an amazing time of growth and learning. But for too many, it can be marred by sexual violence. I'm relieved that sexual assault on college campuses is finally starting to get the attention it deserves. This year's Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign, set to be the most-wide reaching since its designation in April 2001, will focus on preventing sexual violence on college campuses. April will also mark the 5th annual Meet Us On The Street: International Anti-Street Harassment Week, held April 12-18th by Stop Street Harassment and a coalition of over 120 organizations from 33 different countries. These issues are related. Sexual violence is pervasive on and off campus.

I'm willing to bet you that nearly every woman at my undergraduate college experienced street harassment at some point during their college career, either on campus or in neighboring areas; after all, the 2014 Stop Street Harassment national survey found that 65 percent of all women and 25 percent of all men in America have experienced street harassment. Persons of color and LGBT individuals consistently experience higher rates of street harassment than their white and heterosexual peers.

In addition to the academic skills I learned in college that broadened my horizons, I also learned that those horizons regularly needed to be curtailed because of sexual violence. I was told to never walk alone after dark and to implement a buddy system when going to parties. I mapped out the most well lit pathways on campus. I learned to bow my head, bite my tongue and politely decline the advances of aggressive harassers. I read about roofies, emergency contraception, reports of sexual assault incidents and the how-to manual on my brand new pepper spray. I learned to always keep my apartment doors locked and bolted and dictate my movements around town according to what felt safe.

Street harassment and fear of sexual assault has often severely limited my personal freedom, dictating how late I studied at the library, whether I took the long route or the short route back from the parking garage, what I wore to class, and whether or not I walked the five blocks to downtown on a Friday night or drove. Street harassment can have the effect of damaging a person's confidence, making them feel embarrassed of their body or sexuality, and teaches them that they do not always share the same rights to public spaces as their non-harassed peers.

Colleges and universities, already often lacking in resources and desire to adequately address sexual assault happening on campus, rarely provide student training about what to do when it happens off campus. However, schools need to recognize that street harassment likely affects a majority of their students and can have a drastic impact on their quality of life.

College is the time when we learn to reach for our fullest potentials. It is also often the time when we learn to be afraid. I think it's time for that to change.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about the NSVRC and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.