The University of California, Santa Barbara was much more than just a college to me. It was the place that helped save me from a self-destructive lifestyle, where I learned to love myself, where I made lifelong friendships. It was UCSB's incredible faculty and staff that gave me an outstanding education, taught me about privilege, and gave me the opportunity to be involved on campus as a Resident Assistant and editor for the student-run newspaper, the Daily Nexus. Sadly, UCSB is also where I learned firsthand the horrors of sexual assault, and just how easy it was for hate crimes to thrive in a notoriously beautiful party town.
When Elliot Rodger killed six innocent UCSB students and injured 13 individuals, he did more than just commit heinous crimes -- he illuminated the fact that women everywhere live in fear. The hashtag #YesAllWomen started trending, with thousands of women sharing their experiences of sexual assault, harassment, violence, and inequality. Rodger committed a horrific hate crime, driven by misogyny and feelings of entitlement. He blamed women for his misery and used women as an excuse for violence. He hid among thousands of people, unnoticed except by his parents and psychiatrist, and plotted a disgusting and tragic event.
The streets of Isla Vista will never be the same. I remember walking to I.V. Deli Mart, the same location where 20-year-old Chris Martinez was shot and killed, to purchase tea before heading to class or work. While students have placed flowers in the bullet holes in the window, the sadness and grief may never be patched.
Pardall Road, the street connecting the small town of Isla Vista to the campus, was where students like myself and Chris Martinez walked multiple times a day. We met with friends, picked up lunch, and created memories. Sabado Tarde Road was where I parked my car and spent hours laughing with my friends. Del Playa Drive was where I lived my senior year of college; where I woke up to the smell of the ocean, partied with friends, and studied. Unfortunately, Del Playa was also where I experienced sexual harassment, heard homophobic and racist hate speech, and saw numerous acts of violence.
Each year, thousands of people would travel to Isla Vista to party and indulge in the gorgeous scenery. With student-run Co-Ops, surf and bicycle shops, regular concerts in the parks, a thriving Greek community, and a plethora of student organizations, Isla Vista seems like paradise on the outside. But once you see past the sea of beautiful people, the organic foods, and kegs lining Del Playa, you'll find a community where darkness easily hides, overshadowed by dub-step and glistening sunsets.
For every epic house party, there were at least 10 acts of violence. I couldn't walk down the street without being approached or touched by a man who thought of me as a plaything. These men didn't see me as a woman with rights. I was just another object they felt entitled to have. When I rejected their advances, I'd be called a "bitch" or an "ugly slut." Some of my friends weren't so lucky. They were raped, sometimes drugged, and left with feelings of regret, filthiness, sorrow, and rage. They were made to feel guilty when they had done nothing wrong, because they so often heard things like, "women who wear short skirts are asking for it," and "it's your fault for not fighting back." My heart is heavy with sadness for all of the women who were physically and emotionally abused. While they are survivors, they will never be able to erase the injustices they faced. Walking around safely should not be a privilege; it needs to be a right.
But we don't hear these women's stories. We hear about the all-night ragers and scenic views instead, which makes it easy for people like Rodger to hide amongst the masses and harbor vicious plans. Even more commonplace problems, such as the eating disorder I had, so often go unnoticed. I was able to hide my pain and self-loathing under a smile. I participated in school events and organizations. I went out to parties and social gatherings with friends. I was able to fool most people into thinking I was the happiest girl on campus, blending in to the crowd of fun-loving people. My story is far too common. I came to know many people who were casting the same illusion while deeply hurting inside. So many students are dealing with their parents' divorce, a death, racism, homophobia, homesickness, and a myriad of other issues that they never talk about.
While UCSB has great mental health services, of which I took advantage of in college, there is still such a huge stigma surrounding treatment and counseling that scares students. Hundreds, if not thousands, of students are choosing not to get help because society has labeled people with mental health conditions as "crazy" or "insane." Some students I knew didn't want to utilize the resources provided because they felt their problems weren't worthy. They thought, "I live in a wonderful place and am given opportunities many people would love to have, so it'd be selfish of me to complain."
There's nothing insane or selfish about talking to a professional, no matter how small you may think your problem is. You don't have to have a disorder to seek help. Sometimes just talking to someone about the stresses that come with moving away from home and taking tough courses can help make the transition so much easier.
UCSB has a fantastic Women's Center that provides a safe space for women to share their experiences or just take a break from the day. But countless women were too afraid to tell their stories of harassment and abuse in fear that they would be labeled, further shamed, or that the perpetrator would be in trouble. Some women may have even felt that their experiences weren't worthy of being shared; weren't violent enough, shocking enough, or as awful as other survivor experiences. I hope all women can learn that their lived experiences do matter. Whether they are cat-called or raped, sexual violence and harassment is never acceptable. Just because you live in a beautiful place doesn't mean you won't see terribly ugly behaviors. Your story matters.
It's empowering to see my college community coming together to grieve and celebrate the lost lives, to stand strong in solidarity with one another. My heart is broken for the families and friends affected by this senseless act of violence, and I can only hope people all over the world will start supporting each other on a more regular basis. In order to move forward, we need to encourage healing and be kind. We need to look inside and ask ourselves and our loved ones if things are really "okay." Because something has to change, and we can't be afraid to take action.
This piece was originally published by Guff.