Receiving my acceptance letter for the University of California Berkeley was a dream come true, a golden ticket to a home away from home. I had been a social activist since I was 16, spending four summers door-to-door fundraising thousands of dollars and testifying in front of the Massachusetts state legislature for a recycling campaign.
But when I was sexually assaulted in February 2012 at an off-campus event, my optimistic view of the community I had sought at UC Berkeley was shattered.
I didn't know most of the people I went to the event with, but I felt that I would fit into an environment of Berkeley students who were passionate about the same issues as I was. I was comfortable being my usual bubbly and happy self, and I jumped at the chance to make some new friends. As a freshman still settling into my new home on the West Coast, I wanted to find the student groups to remain in for my time as a Golden Bear.
At 3:30 a.m. the first night there, I was awoken by an unfamiliar hand. I felt his heart beating in his chest, his sweaty fingers crawling on my skin. I was immediately confused, and my mind was not in sync with what was happening to my body. And I was in a room with 10 other people -- I did not want to explain what was happening to me to a room full of his best friends and people whose names I didn't know.
I thought: I must be imagining this. Should I say something? I'm a freshman and he's a leader here, no one will believe me. Shouldn't I be grateful for this attention anyway? If I speak up, I'll look stupid and unreasonable, and I'll be blowing this out of proportion.
The following day was a blur of confusion. I was stuck in a city 3,000 miles from home and nearly 500 miles away from my home at Berkeley. I didn't understand why I had to keep going into the bathroom to cry, or why I didn't want to be around anyone. I just wanted to crawl out of my own skin. As I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn't feel that I was the person that I thought I knew.
I just wanted to be back to normal. I wanted to get to know the people that I was there with, and I didn't want to give the impression that I was a downer on the trip.
I tried to confide some vague information to a few of my new friends about what had happened and how confused I was, but I didn't really know what to say. I felt that I was overreacting, and to make matters worse, the few people who I told at home didn't understand what had happened to me either. No one I told seemed to think it was a big deal, so neither did I.
But when a leader in the organization approached me about the assault, I began to consider that maybe it mattered more than I had originally thought. Her interest in talking with me and concern about the situation took me by surprise, and I agreed to tell her what happened because I didn't want it to happen to anyone else. The following week, my assailant was pressured to resign from his leadership position, but it didn't stop him from continuing to assault someone else a few weeks later. At the same time, rumors began to spread about what he had done to me, becoming a new piece of gossip for people that I hardly knew.
Finding out that his behavior had not changed made me furious, and I blamed myself for not having done more to stop him. Myself and three other people filed a report with the University against him in April 2012, and I thought that we could get some justice short of going to the police, which I didn't have time for or want to put myself through. Ultimately, none of us were ever contacted to provide more evidence or to assist in an investigation.
Then in the fall, I learned from a friend that my assailant was planning to graduate a semester early than planned, without the administration ever reaching out to me. I was angry that we had been ignored even with four survivors reporting, and I felt once again that it was my fault that I was in this situation. Waiting for the administration to respond was going to cost the shred of justice that I was hanging on to.
After waiting seven months for the reply that never came, I inquired into my case on my own. I finally received two three-sentence emails telling me that my case had "been resolved through an early resolution process" and that he had been found in violation of the student Code of Conduct, without specifying if any disciplinary action had been taken against him. Two days later, he graduated.
Contrary to its reputation for social justice, UC Berkeley has had a long and documented history of silencing survivors and under-disciplining offenders. In 1979, a coalition known as Women Organized Against Sexual Harassment filed a federal Title IX complaint on the grounds of sexual discrimination and harassment by professors. The same year, WOASH filed a joint brief in Alexander v. Yale, the Supreme Court case that set the precedent that sexual assault on college campuses violated Title IX.
Now more than 30 years later, students passed "A Bill of No Confidence in UC Berkeley's Disciplinary Policies Regarding Sexual Assault" through the UC Berkeley student government, detailing the problems with the current policies and our suggestions for improving them. At the bill's hearing, the administration criticized the bill's accuracy, but refused to detail any of the problems when the senators asked what they were. The bill had been previously reviewed and deemed accurate by a lawyer.
Sexual assault is a virus, falsely vaccinated with a shot of negligence to fool us into believing that it does not exist. It contaminates Berkeley's medical center and poisons the rooms of our residence halls, disguises itself in the shadows of the Greek system and festers within our disciplinary procedures. I am only one of the 6,000 people who are sexually assaulted at Berkeley before graduating.
But there is a cure to this disease. Following the bill's passage, a group of Berkeley survivors connected with the IX Network, a coalition of students from schools across the country working to change the culture of shame, neglect, and betrayal on college campuses. With the love and support of this network of survivors, we filed a federal Clery Act complaint with the Department of Education on the behalf of nine survivors at UC Berkeley. Standing in solidarity with students filing complaints at Swarthmore College, the University of Southern California, and Dartmouth College, we showed that we will no longer stay silent.
Berkeley was, and still is, my dream school. My experience here has challenged me over the past 15 months to become stronger and more resilient, to speak out when I do not feel respected, and to support other survivors. The seeds of my activism were sown growing up in the progressive stronghold of Cambridge, budded with my first door-to-door political canvass in rural Massachusetts, and blossomed at Berkeley as I became a feminist.
As a Berkeley administrator told me, "Although the University's system may have failed you, perhaps you can seek justice on a larger scale."
That is exactly what I am going to do.
Follow Sofie Karasek on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sofierkarasek