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Shame and Pride at Amherst College

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The emotional intensity at Amherst College the past month has been high. On October 17th, Angie Epiphano wrote an article in our student newspaper, where she told her story of being raped. The article strongly criticized the school's response to her alleged assault, and called out our counselors and administrations for failing her. Coming on the heels of another controversial article, Angie's story quickly went viral. The story soon was getting national attention. Since then, other stories have received national attention as well.

Ever since the release of Angie's article, our collective Amherst community has been through a rollercoaster of emotions: anger, shame, remorse, fear, grief, hope, and determination have all been along for the ride. Avery Stone '14 wrote touchingly on grief. At the Rally to End the Culture of Silence (a rally started by students outside of a trustees meeting at the Lord Jeff Inn), we grappled with anger and saw a glimmer of hope on a dreary day. In our leaders (President Biddy Martin, Amherst Association of Students President Tania Dias '13) we have seen remorse , determination, and not just words, but untiring and continuous action. But as a community, we have yet to confront the feeling that Angie singled out in her piece: shame. I would like to suggest that there is reason to be ashamed of Amherst College, and a reason to be ashamed of ourselves. But I would also like to argue that, in our response, we have something to be proud of.

Students at schools like Amherst are fond of "demanding a dialog" when confronted with culture change. Whenever a pressing issue comes up in the Amherst community, we ask that Amherst, as a whole, think thoughtfully on the issues raised. The hope is that that discussion will lead to new conclusions, practical suggestions, and perhaps a more educated community. But I feel that most of the time demanding a dialog is a cop-out. We like dialogs as a response to complex culture issues because they allow for the kind of intellectual introspection that we thrive on, but on the other hand they do not challenge the author or even the supposed future interlocutors to come up with a substantive solution. Furthermore, what would it mean to have the dialog we so often call for? It's unclear what that would even be like.

Well, it was unclear, until this past month when our campus launched into exactly such a dialog. A series of brave students came forward and demanded that this campus pay attention to sexual assault at Amherst. Clearly it should not have taken a wakeup call from wronged victims to set us off on a positive path. But apparently it did.

The day after Angie's article came out, the entire campus was abuzz. You couldn't go anywhere -- really, anywhere! -- without hearing people talking about the piece and its ramifications. My roommates and I stayed up all night, unable to focus on anything academic. Over the following days we followed the news. We joined Facebook discussion groups. We shared our thoughts with friends across the country. We heard even more stories of solidarity in return. We talked about rape. We talked about trials. We talked about the law. We discussed the problems specific to Amherst (the small community, the sports culture, the insufficient support system) and we discussed the frequency of sexual assault as a national problem. Plans and policies were put forth, meetings were well attended. President Martin reached out to us, the Board of Trustees met with student representatives. But above all, we talked. Of course, people still have different opinions on what should be done. But staff, policies, and programs are changing, and it's because of the campus-wide dialog our community has fostered.

In fact, the Amherst administration was so supportive of trying to create a dialog that a Day of Dialog was scheduled for November 2nd. All classes were cancelled, and the entire day was dedicated to "Speaking to Silence." The morning opened with remarks from President Biddy Martin, Gina Smith (a legal and policy expert), and Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander. Early on in these remarks, a group of students demanded to be heard, with signs and a speech. Rather than asking them to be "more respectful," the speakers invited the protestors onto the stage, and then asked them to circle the room with their signs so that more people could see them. The day then split off into small discussion groups, where faculty, staff, and students came together to talk through the issues and come up with suggestions for the school. The day closed on one of our main quads, where an open-mic allowed any student to give suggestions or comments in front of the student body as President Martin stood beside them. The turnout to the day was tremendous -- some 1,900 students, faculty, and staff attended. Our student population is around 1,800.

Amherst is generally perceived as being a small, supportive community comprising the best and brightest in the world. Part of what was so galling about the attacks on Amherst is that we are Amherst. At a bigger school (like Penn State, for example) an attack on the administration has nothing to do with the students. But here at tiny Amherst, to say that Amherst has a sexual assault problem is to say that Amherst has a sexual assault problem and it involves us all. The administration's problems are our problems, and vice-versa, because our administrators are our teachers and our friends, and our 'culture of rape' encompasses a group of fewer than 2,000 people, of which we are all members. We are very much a part of the community that was tacitly complicit in those shameful actions. As individuals we may not have supported rape, but as a community we allowed for an unsafe environment. As President Martin has put it, if students even feel unsafe, we have a serious problem.

Some might suggest that we should be embarrassed by the way our school's internal struggle has become nationalized. To those critics, I remind you of our Latin charge: Terras Irradient, which means Let Them Bring Light to the World. It is a charge to look beyond Amherst. By sharing our 'story' with the rest of the nation, we are living up to our motto. And by our story, I do not mean any particular story of assault or injustice. Rather, I mean the story of an elite liberal-arts institution whose sexual assault and mental health counseling programs didn't meet the needs of assault victims. I mean the story of the (relatively) newly coed college that failed to keep its students feeling safe and secure. I mean the story of the institution that is supposed to lead by example.

And I am ashamed that my school and my community failed to lead by example. But if I am ashamed, I am also proud. I am proud that in our darkest moment, we shared Angie's story with vigor, and did not try to downplay it or sweep it under the rug. I am proud of the way the Amherst College Facebook and Twitter accounts didn't dance around the issue when Angie's story went viral, but rather have continued to retweet and post media coverage, even if it's unfavorable. I am proud of consultant Gina Smith's comment that she has "... never seen a college grab a bull by the horns like I have seen Amherst do." I am proud that our school has, at least this once, had a meaningful dialog that has begun to see results.