When I visit the University Park campus I’m often struck by how much has changed with the college experience since I attended college in the early 1980’s. However, there are many of the same issues that I experienced as a young woman as I grappled with the responsibilities of adulthood, independence, peer pressure, and academic rigor. There are things, many things I wish my parents had discussed with me before I left for college, but looking back there was a wide generation gap between me and my parent’s generation. I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you the issues I wish my parents had talked to me about, specifically, about alcohol and sexual assault. This is a critical and potentially lifesaving discussion that must become part of the regular narrative between parents and children.
I do not believe my parents could comprehend that alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct took place on a college campus, let alone impact one of their daughters. I do not recall having discussions about the consequences of drinking too much, and most definitely there were ZERO discussions about anything related to sexuality. My dating experience heading off to college was very limited. I had many male friends, but none that I found interesting enough to date long term. That changed when I left for college. However, I quickly discovered that I was unprepared and immature to handle the new found freedom of college life.
I wish my parents had discussed with me the dangers of over-consuming alcohol. As it was back when I went to school and even more so now, young adults drink alcohol in alarming amounts, and in some cases deadly amounts. I know I felt the pressure to fit in and believed that the only way to have fun was to go to parties and drink. What I didn’t realize at the time that drinking too much not only caused me to feel terrible the next day, but more important, my decision-making and choices were altered as well. In choosing to over-consume, I let my guard down, I made choices that were not in my best interest, and to this day I have deep regrets.
Parents, as you prepare your child to leave, I cannot stress enough the importance of having serious conversations with them about responsible drinking and the consequences that can occur due to overconsumption. Let’s face it, underage drinking is prevalent on every college campus across the country, it is not limited to Penn State and is most likely the common denominator in many poor and tragic choices made by college students. While students will take online alcohol and drug awareness modules before they begin their freshmen year, as parents we must continue to have an ongoing dialogue with our children about alcohol and drug abuse and teach them by our example. My parents never took the time to talk with me about the impact drinking too much could have on my life and my college experience. Perhaps that one conversation would have helped me when I needed it the most.
I wish my parents would have taught me the difference between “consent” and not being able to give consent because I was impaired. That conversation would have never taken place, because “good girls” would never put themselves in that type of “situation.” I wish I had been better prepared, more experienced and comfortable around the young men who I flirted with at parties and bars. Instead, I was naïve, trusting, and unsuspecting of their ulterior motives. What seemed like a harmless walk home, because I was a little “tipsy” turned into a situation that I never expected to happen to me, I said “no!” and that plea fell on deaf ears. I became one of “those girls” you have heard about, the girl who had too much to drink and led a guy on to think she wanted to have sex with him. The only problem with that scenario is “girls like me” were not able to make that choice, it was forced upon them. That experience forever changed me and, even after working through my feelings with counselors I still think about the “what if’s”. Through my own journey, I found I wasn’t alone, and discovered that other young women just like me had the same thing happen to them. Back then, these incidents were never reported or discussed; it was taboo to come forward. I wish I had confided in someone. I was too ashamed. I blamed myself because after all, I drank a little too much and let my guard down.
During my years in college, there were few resources to help students who were victims of sexual assault; there were no hotlines, psychological services, or even guidance on how to report a crime of this nature. Instead, I pretended that I was just fine. I was too ashamed of what my parents would think of me to ask for their support, to ask for counseling or report the incident. I know my parents loved me and I know how devastated they would have been to learn about what happened to me. I wish my parents would have provided me with a sense that I could share anything with them, no matter how awful and they would be there to support me and guide me in the right direction.
Parents, please share my story with your son or daughter as they prepare to begin their college experience and let them know that you will listen to them and support them unconditionally, no matter what the circumstance. A candid discussion regarding personal responsibility, sexuality and consent should not be limited to students attending college for the first time, rather, a continuous dialogue throughout your son or daughters college experience. Additionally, it is important to become familiar with and to share with your child the resources that are available to them on campus, specifically, the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response: http://titleix.psu.edu/get-help/, Counseling and Psychological Services: http://studentaffairs.psu.edu/counseling/self-help_sa.shtml, and the Center for Women Students: http://studentaffairs.psu.edu/womenscenter/
I wish I could turn back time and use the knowledge, wisdom and insight I have gained to alter my college experiences. I cannot change the past, but continue to move forward. My hope is that this blog will serve as the impetus for a larger discussion between you and your children. As parents and guardians, it is our responsibility to prepare our children for adulthood, all aspects of it, good and bad. Conversations that are uncomfortable tend to be put off or never occur. Take the time now to have these important conversations so that your child will be informed, prepared and they will not look back and wish you had.