In the last few years, the issue of sexual assault has been a major focus for universities around the nation. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is no exception. University officials recently visited UAF’s Northwest Campus in Nome to discuss the issue. Campus dynamics and the community-wide struggle with sexual assault and domestic violence made it hard to draw connections between efforts in Fairbanks and actions in Nome.
To spark discussion on the issue of sexual assault, UAF’s Northwest Campus recently screened the documentary “The Hunting Ground.” The film opens with a rolling orchestral soundtrack that calls to mind university quads and collegiate culture.
In the opening sequence, home videos show students react to hearing they’ve been accepted to their top choice schools.
Most of the students are young women and most schools are big-name universities like Notre Dame or Harvard.
It’s inspiring, but not at all familiar. In Nome, university culture couldn’t be more different. UAF’s Northwest Campus is a community college that mainly serves non-traditional students. It offers mostly one-credit courses like Kuspuk sewing and caribou hide tanning. And those courses aren’t just offered in Nome.
“We have a sled-building class in Shaktoolik,”said Bob Metcalf, Director of UAF’s Northwest Campus.
Metcalf said every campus employee is trained in Title IX, a federal law that guarantees gender equity in all federally funded schools. Sexual assault is considered a form of discrimination, since it creates a hostile environment for the victim and preventing him or her from benefiting from the school’s education program.
UAF’s interim Chancellor Mike Powers made the trip from Fairbanks to screen the film. After the closing credits, he opened the room up for public discussion.
“What we can do to help support the community, the Northwest Campus, on prevention, on how large an issue is it, on anything we should be aware of,” Powers said.
But the room remained silent. The issue of sexual assault is huge in Alaska.
Thirty-seven percent of women in Alaska have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That’s according to the Alaska Victimization Survey conducted by UAA’s Justice Center. In the Nome census area, from Shishmaref over to Savoonga and down to Stebbins, 31 percent of women are victims of sexual assault.
Mae Marsh is UAF’s Title IX Coordinator.
“If the university can’t do something to change this mindset, who can,” Marsh asked.
Marsh said the University can encourage a stronger stance against sexual assault.
“If you come to the university and there’s a standard that says ‘This is not acceptable behavior and if you demonstrate this type of behavior you will be expelled from our community or you will be suspended,’ it sets a new standard,” said Marsh.
But the push for the University to lead the way doesn’t quite translate at UAF’s Northwest Campus in Nome. Its transient and non-traditional student body makes sweeping changes harder to carry out. Instead, Bob Metcalf said the campus is following in the footsteps of community.
“They’re ahead of the campus with Green Dot, and equity, and social justice,” Metcalf said. “We see our role as supporting [the community].”
Green Dot is just one of the ways the community is confronting sexual assault. The statewide initiative encourages people to speak out against violence. It’s already been introduced at Nome Public Schools. Local parent Dana Handeland has two kids in college. She said talking about sexual assault before kids leave for college is a good thing.
“Most kids grow up with all the kids they go to school with,” said Handeland. “They’re almost siblings by the time they graduate.”
Despite having both kids out of the house, Handeland was at the screening of “The Hunting Ground,” to educate herself. She says for kids who grow up in bush communities, the transition to college can be traumatic.
“Rural communities need to start this much sooner than just, ‘Okay, let’s make sure you watch this as orientation in college.’ They’re already bombarded with ‘How am I going to find my class,’ [and] ‘where’s this building,’” Handeland said.
UAF’s interim Chancellor Mike Powers and Title IX Coordinator Mae Marsh offered updates and answered questions for locals in the audience like Handeland. But there was a clear disconnect.
The differences between battles being fought on campus in Fairbanks and throughout the community in Nome highlighted their different priorities. Without an action plan in place, UAF officials boarded a plane out of Nome that same evening, leaving the community to continue its uphill battle against sexual assault.