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Sun Devils develop online resource to support students who experience sexual assault

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February 24, 2022

When you’ve been through a trauma, your brain behaves differently as a survival tactic. Yet, if you’re a survivor of sexual assault, there are many decisions to be made if you’re seeking care or justice.

Some need to be made immediately. And every decision comes with different considerations for the survivor. 

“As a survival mechanism, a lot of your logical thinking and memory components are temporarily shut down,” said Michelle Villegas-Gold, associate director of health and clinical research at ASU Knowledge Enterprise.

“Because our brains perceive sexual assaults as life threatening, akin to attempted murder, the oldest part of the brain that is responsible for survival kicks in and is basically like, we just need to do whatever it takes to live through this situation. When you’re in a life-or-death situation, you don’t have time to sit down and make a pros and cons list of what you should do to increase your chances of survival,” she said. 

As part of her dissertation for her PhD in global heath, Villegas-Gold and other ASU graduate and undergraduate students, along with support from university and community partners, created the Here4U online resource for survivors of sexual assault to help them make informed choices about how to seek care, support, advocacy and justice.

The online resource, which went live in fall 2021, was inspired by Villegas-Gold’s years of experience in crisis work, which included working as a counselor who specializes in trauma, as a legal advocate and as someone who responded to overnight crisis calls, including from ASU students. 

“The existing infrastructure and services are not perfect, but there are a lot of people who are working really hard to support survivors in various capacities, whether that’s within the university or outside of the university,” she said. “But often, individuals aren't aware of what resources are available. And when I worked as a crisis specialist, it was my full-time job to know all the resources that were available. And often, there were things that I didn't know about, or I would call a number and it had been disconnected. And it was a very confusing system to navigate.”

Here4U is a resource that takes survivors or allies through simple questions that will help people navigate to the most relevant resources. Although it’s most relevant for people living in the Phoenix metropolitan area when it comes to physical resources, Villegas-Gold said it’s a resource that was built with any ASU student or community member in mind, including ASU Online students. 

“The tool is not intended to replace any existing supports or systems or resources. It’s also not intended to fix any of those things. And it doesn’t purport to — it’s just intended to help people navigate the systems that are already there, to understand what resources are there and to reduce the amount of options that don’t apply to them.”

For example, whether an assault happened on campus, whether the perpetrator was an ASU student or staff member, whether the incident happened more than 72 hours ago and whether the survivor wants to pursue criminal charges or administrative justice through the university could all affect what resources are relevant to a survivor. 

“Here4U weeds out different options that may not apply to them, so that it helps them make these informed choices,” Villegas-Gold said. 

The final product was several years in the making, and ASU students were involved in every step, including then-graduate student in computer science Dharmin Dholiya from the Institute for Humanities Research, who was the original developer for the site, as well as undergraduate peer educators in ASU’s Sexual Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response program, who helped with the language, approach and resources as either advocates or survivors — or both.

One of the students involved, who asked not to be named in this article, responded to a call for help to build the site, and met with Villegas-Gold several times to give feedback as a survivor and a student throughout the process. 

“Like many, I have experienced the impacts of sexual violence both personally and through the stories of friends, family and colleagues. Unfortunately, sexual violence is pervasive, and despite efforts to increase discussion and knowledge around sexual violence, it still can hold a great deal of misplaced shame and guilt for the survivor,” they said. “My ultimate hope is that this tool helps users feel that they are not alone and that they have the power to get answers and take care of themselves.”

The student graduated in 2019 and is excited to see that the tool is now available to support fellow Sun Devils. 

“I am thrilled to see this tool launch, as I truly believe it will make a meaningful impact and provide support to individuals as they traverse an extremely difficult experience,” they said.

After learning about Villegas-Gold’s work at ASU, Maggie Slater, CEO of Aliferous Technology, reached out to support the project on the technological side. 

“By partnering with Dr. Michelle Villegas-Gold as Here4U’s technology provider, our vision realized is to bring Here4U to student survivors on multiple campuses and beyond,” Slater said. 

Throughout the process, Villegas-Gold said the resources of ASU's Educational Outreach and Student Services were invaluable, including support and leadership from ASU Health Services, ASU Counseling Services and the Dean of Students Office, in addition to the ASU Sexual Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response program. 

Villegas-Gold remembers calling Aaron Krasnow, the associate vice president of ASU Counseling and Health Services, in the middle of the night when issues came up for ASU students on crisis calls. When she asked to meet with him in person about Here4U, he and his colleagues supported the effort however they could.

“They understood the utility and the need for the tool. And so they were just wonderfully supportive,” she said. “The (Sexual Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response) program at ASU was very involved. The students who worked there were involved in building the tool. They were just incredibly supportive. And it was really wonderful working with them. Honestly, I was really blown away by the generosity of everyone, because we know how busy people are.”

Krasnow was happy to connect Here4U with the Educational Outreach and Student Services resources for survivors, and emphasizes that the response to sexual violence at ASU and anywhere is multifaceted and complex.

“Our commitment to survivors is always to ensure that they have been at the center of the process. Any tool that can help survivors know their options and get the assistance they want to pursue is invaluable,” Krasnow said. “Here4U can help members of our ASU community and beyond narrow down the options and resources that apply based on what actions a survivor wants to take if they’ve experienced violence.”

Because sexual assault is an ongoing public health issue that can get in the way of people earning their degrees, Villegas-Gold said it’s important to find ways to support survivors in the ASU community. Even if the solutions are complex.

“I’m really taking that seriously and thinking about, right now, in this moment, what can we do to show up for students who are experiencing these things?” Villegas-Gold said. “Knowing that it’s definitely not a magic wand that fixes imperfect systems, I hope that it helps people to know that the help that they need is out there and be able to connect with it.”

Here4U is available now to assist Sun Devils who have experienced violence. The tool was developed in collaboration with the ASU Sexual Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response program, ASU Counseling Servces, ASU Heath Services, the Dean of Students Office, the ASU Institute for Humanities Research, Aliferous Technology, the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, the Phoenix Police Department, the Mesa Police Department and Honor Health.