The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response’s new director, Alicia Oeser, said the office has a dual mission: “responding to survivors, anyone who has already experienced a sexual assault, who has been in an abusive relationship, experienced stalking, harassment, anything that falls under that umbrella,” and decreasing incidents of sexual assault through prevention work.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Q&A with Alicia Oeser

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New director of Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response outlines mission, services

Harvard President Drew Faust recently announced that new resources would be allocated to bolster the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR), which was created in 2003. The Harvard Gazette sat down with the office’s new director, Alicia Oeser, to discuss the dual mission of providing support services to those who have experienced sexual assault and offering education and outreach programs to decrease the incidence of sexual assault on campus. Oeser also helps staff the recently created Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Violence.

GAZETTE: Can you describe the office’s mission?

OESER: OSAPR has a dual mission. The primary focus is responding to survivors, anyone who has already experienced a sexual assault, who has been in an abusive relationship, experienced stalking, harassment, anything that falls under that umbrella. We offer immediate crisis counseling; short term, one-on-one conversations where we check in with someone and hopefully get them through their roughest moments. If long-term therapy seems like it would be helpful, we refer them somewhere else. We’ll walk students directly over to Student Mental Health Services. We’ll recommend someone we’ve worked with in the past so that there’s some sort of personal connection, and I think that that helps build rapport.

We also offer medical advocacy and help students navigate their legal options. If somebody chooses to go to the hospital following a sexual assault, Harvard University Police Department and Harvard University Health Services are both trained to call OSAPR. We will come to campus, wherever the students happen to be, and drive them to the hospital so they don’t have to go in a squad car or in an ambulance. Then we will stay with them, make sure they are comfortable, make sure they know what their rights are, and then we get them home. We also follow up with them to make sure if there is anything else they need we are offering it, although it’s not infrequent that somebody says, “No thank you, I just want to move on.” But we’ll still maintain a relationship where we check in to say: “Is everything OK? Have you changed your mind? Is there anything you want to come in and talk about?” So we try to give people multiple connection points.

Assistance with navigating the legal system might include helping with filing a police report, or going to court for a restraining order, order of protection, no-contact order, the whole gamut of what somebody might need in terms of protective services. If somebody wanted to pursue a criminal justice case and go through the process of working with prosecutors, we would help them do that.

I think it’s important that people know those services are available to anyone in the University community. Graduate and professional students are welcome and encouraged to call us.

The second mission of the office is to decrease incidents of sexual assault, and we do that through prevention work, including education and outreach programs. All freshmen entering Harvard College will have exposure to the OSAPR. They see a skit about healthy relationships and consent followed by a 45-minute workshop led by trained peer educators. They discuss the different tools you can use to promote safety on campus using “bystander intervention,” an approach that gets students to think about all the points where they can intervene before a sexual assault occurs.

We also work with a range of student groups and sports teams. They reach out to us, and we count on them to do that because it’s a pretty tough sell to say: “Come talk about rape.” People aren’t lining up out the door to have that conversation. It’s such an emotional, tough topic. We have to find other ways to reach students, and getting their peers involved is critical.

We also meet with sororities, fraternities, and social clubs, which surprises people. This year we will have worked with every single final club, and that is voluntary.

GAZETTE: Can you tell me more about the hotline?

OESER: The hotline is in operation 24/7. That’s weekends, holidays, summer, anything. The idea is that people don’t have to sit on questions, anxiety, fear alone. If something comes up at 3 in the morning, if somebody is studying and can’t focus because of something that happened a long time ago, and they just need to talk about it, we are there. If someone had a conversation with their friend and they are concerned and don’t know who to talk to, and they don’t want to betray their friend’s privacy, we are there. The hotline isn’t just for emergencies for people who were sexually assaulted moments ago. The hotline is for anyone. It’s meant to be a full-service resource.

GAZETTE: Can you tell me about the student groups that are involved with your office?

OESER: The first group is Response peer counseling, and they specialize in sexual assault. The idea is that if people are intimidated by staff or are not comfortable calling us, there’s another option out there for them. The second group is CAARE, which stands for consent, assault awareness, and relationship educators. The CAARE students are our peer educators, who are responsible for programming and curriculum design. The third student group is Harvard Men Against Rape. They get together and talk about events in the news and violence in pop culture and how that relates to campus life and how masculinity is a factor in this. Anyone who wants to be part of this group is welcome. But the idea is to encourage the presence of men as agents who challenge the attitudes of other men and society as a whole in order to reduce sexual violence.

GAZETTE: Why is it important that students can come to the office confidentially?

OESER: OSAPR provides one of the few confidential reporting options for students and others. Because of our Title IX obligations as a University, there aren’t a lot of spaces where that’s possible.

Certainly student mental health services, medical providers, and any clergy members will maintain confidentiality. Other staff — for instance, tutors and proctors, people college students maybe see as their front line — keep information private but may need to share it with a Title IX coordinator. Sharing information with tutors, proctors, and other staff puts the University on notice, so they may have to respond.

In contrast, when you come to OSAPR, our staff is legally allowed to keep your information confidential. We maintain only anonymous statistics for the Clery Act so individual student information stays between the student and OSAPR. It’s not something that moves anywhere beyond here. Giving people this confidential option is really significant in increasing the number of reports that we are able to receive. Making sure that people can discuss their situation confidentially helps them know it’s OK to make that first phone call.

GAZETTE: How is the office’s role different from the roles of the University’s Title IX officer or the Title IX coordinators at each of Harvard’s Schools?

OESER: The idea behind having both advocacy services at OSAPR as well as Title IX coordinators in the Schools is to provide students with multiple options at Harvard. Mia Karvonides, the University’s Title IX officer, is the expert on Title IX, and maintains an open-door policy to discuss the role of her office and the role that the Title IX coordinators play at each of Harvard’s Schools. Unquestionably, I can say that having Title IX coordinators at each of the Schools increases options for survivors, should they decide to come forward.

Both the School-based Title IX coordinators and OSAPR are dedicated to providing students with the support they need. Both should be well known as options for students.

But our office, OSAPR, is in a unique position. It isn’t our job to sort out the facts when a student tells us about an assault, which means we do not have to remain neutral. We take what they tell us at face value and figure out how we can support them. When somebody sits down in front of us, we are going to talk to them about what brought them in. We are going to have a conversation based on how they respond. Our job is to say: “We believe you. What do you need now?” And make sure that that’s available. We can help students access options or accommodations, including Title IX coordinators, but because we are confidential there is no obligation to move forward in any capacity beyond what the student chooses. We are meant to be a safe space for survivors, and we do this through a commitment to confidential, non-directive service.

GAZETTE: What is the most important thing you would want people to know about your work?

OESER: I think one of the easiest ways to encapsulate this is to remind people that sexual assault is something that can happen to anyone. Your race, your cultural background, your religious background, your gender, your educational background, who your family is, doesn’t matter when you are talking about sexual assault. The fact that this can happen to anyone means that this matters to everyone.

The way we are invested in this conversation is by both supporting the people who unfortunately have already been there, and then helping to navigate a conversation that makes it stop. Because if we are all invested in this, that means we can all do something to stop it.

GAZETTE: How did you get involved in this kind of work?

OESER: I started doing this kind of work eight years ago on the Chicago Rape Crisis Hotline. I was getting my master’s in sociology at DePaul University, and I took this class [where] the woman who ran the city’s domestic hotline spoke. I had so many questions for her during class. Afterwards she came up to me and gave me her card and told me I should think about this kind of work. I kept thinking about it and realized it made sense.

I identify as a survivor and, at the time, I was really just realizing that. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be great to help create community and safe spaces for people, so I decided to volunteer for the hotline. I had no intention of turning it into a career, but the minute I took my first phone call it felt right. I remember thinking, “I can do this.” That was it. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.

I also worked at DePaul as their coordinator of sexual violence support services. It was a brand-new office. I was the first person to serve in the role. It was an amazing experience to get to build the program from the ground up, but night and day from coming to Harvard, where there’s already something in place. Later, I ran a transitional housing program for women with children who left abusive homes. I think that’s probably the hardest job I’ve ever had. You have to redefine success when you are looking at intersections of poverty and tremendous amounts of trauma in someone’s life. It taught me a lot about how to think creatively in finding solutions for people that are going to work for them, not solutions that are going to work for me.

The last job I had before coming to Harvard was [as] the LGBT and hate crimes specialist at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office [in Illinois], where I also worked on sex crimes. There, I had the opportunity to learn the legal system inside and out and learn what the criminal justice system looks like. I feel lucky. I’ve been on the hotline, I’ve been up all night with people, I’ve been to court with them, and I’ve helped them navigate success at a college. I feel like all of that has informed what I am going to be able to do here. I am grateful for what that experience has taught me, and I am glad to get to put it to use here.