Earlier this week, I spoke to the female student-athletes at Kean University in New Jersey. An acquaintance from my college days is coach there and asked me to speak about my experience as an athlete, a successful professional and a victim of assault. I agreed to his request, and in the weeks after, found myself practicing what I would say and rushing to write down points I’d want to make. A haphazard collection of napkins, torn paper pieces and iPad notes to myself give proof of this.
My favorite college professor always used to tell me he taught “because it’s all about the kids, Keri.” He dedicated his life to teaching journalism, to being a sounding board for students and a friend. I thought about him often (he passed away a few years ago) during this time, viewing my speech as the opportunity to reach a group of women who are at a crucial age and helping them. Statistically, 1 in 4 women aged 18-24 will be victims of rape or attempted rape. That is a staggering number.
For whatever reason, I pressured myself to find the perfect words, the most powerful points, to give the most attention-worthy speech the girls had ever heard on the topic. I was nervous.
So much about sexual assault overwhelms me – the abysmal reporting numbers, the unending disappointment about perpetrators walking free, and the silent, soul-crushing effects it has on victims. And with this one speech, I’d be testing the waters for my ability to articulate all of it in a relatable, not-overwhleming way that would elicit their interest in the issue, and hopefully, their understanding that much of what they’ve been told about the crime is antiquated, false and only leads to more victimization of victims. Yes, I planned to do all of that in 45-60 minutes of talking.
When the night came to speak, and the girls filed in to the theater, I was struck by their youth. Their fresh faces and giggly, girlish ways. At twice their age, I suppose that makes sense. And suddenly, my nerves multipled. What if all my attempts to speak on their level, in a way that connects to them was ill-advised? What if they saw me as some middle-aged woman keeping them from studying or hanging out or watching their favorite reality TV show? My brain has an uncanny ability to conjure awful scenarios in quick succession. It’s a gift.
All I know is that after I was introduced, I took one last look at my notes, sucked down a gulp of air and went at it. I told them about myself, my career, my story and the things I wish someone had told me. Early on, I realized I had most of their attention and it eased me. Some of them smiled and nodded as I spoke. Each of these small encouragements spurred me on and I found a rhythm in my storytelling that felt natural. About 70 minutes later, I finished. During that time, I had made them laugh, saw some of them tear up, I myself teared up, cursed five different times for emphasis, and unapologetically told them that they need to be the change.
I felt good. I felt calm. I realized I am ready to do more of this as soon as possible. In the days after, some of the athletes sent me emails and Twitter messages. Here are excerpts from two that I just love:
- “Besides teaching me about self-protection and awareness, you taught me not to settle for less than I deserve. I want to go far in life and not settle for anything less.”
@afbwoman at the end of the day what you said was more important than a little practice. We loved how real you were with us!”
Leaving Kean’s campus that night, I could not help but feel fiercely protective of those girls and so hopeful. I believe they are uniquely positioned to be leaders and change agents. I believe they can help turn the tide on this disgusting crime.
With that amazing experience under my belt, I turned my eyes to my continued preparation for the Interpersonal Violence Think Tank I am attending later this week. I have to say, I am doing all sorts of research and reading in hopes that I can contribute to the conversation in a lasting way. From what I can tell based on the attendee list I received, I am the only former student-athlete there who is also a sexual assault survivor and former NCAA staffer. As I have expressed previously, I am meeting/becoming exposed to brilliant people who have years of knowledge I can’t even pretend to possess. But being a hybrid strangely works in my favor in that I have lived college athletics and the crime.
Before I head to the Think Tank, I will have another Crisis Counselor training. I can’t believe how quickly it is moving along and how much information I am absorbing. I feel like I am living two separate lives. I have my work life focused on somewhat frivolous things, and then, I submerge myself in an issue that taps into everything my work life does not. I am so grateful to have both.