As the credits roll on The Hunting Ground, the audience appears solemn and reflective. A panel of professionals sits on the stage of the ICC auditorium, ready to discuss the themes of the film. Among them is Jennifer Wiggins.
“Throughout my college career, I had never even heard someone use the term ‘rape,’ or ‘sexual assault,’” Wiggins said later in an interview. “It was always these innuendos of like ‘stay in groups,’ and ‘don’t drink too much,’ or ‘don’t hang out with shady people.’ But we never, even my friends, never talked about assault.”
Wiggins grew up in Philadelphia. Initially, she wanted to pursue a career in elementary education at Cabrini College. But after an introductory psychology class, she decided to change her major.
“Coming from a low-income, being first-gen, my mom was like ‘What does that even mean? Will you be able to get a job? You’re not gonna be able to work anywhere.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll have to go to grad school but it’ll be great!’” Wiggins said.
In graduate school at Arcadia University, Wiggins took a trauma course which included working at a local rape crisis center. She accompanied survivors to preliminary hearings and provided them with resources. Upon graduation, she counseled survivors as young as four and as old as 90.
As part of Georgetown’s programming for Title IX Week this year, the GUSA Federal & DC Relations Committee, co-sponsored by the Women’s Center, screened The Hunting Ground (2015). The film depicts the epidemic of campus sexual misconduct and the difficulties of navigating the Title IX reporting process. When Wiggins initially viewed the film three years ago, it prompted her to apply to work with survivors on a college campus because she noticed how great the need is for information and counseling around sexual assault.
In 2015, Wiggins took a job as a staff clinician and sexual assault specialist in Georgetown’s Health Education Services (HES) office.
HES is a health promotion office that offers programming and counseling to foster student well-being. Employees specialize in areas such as sexual assault, eating disorders, healthy relationships, substance abuse, and stress management, but they emphasize overall wellness.
Wiggins describes her job as three-pronged: education, direct service, and advocacy. As an educator, Wiggins participates in Engelhard courses, programming at the Center for Social Justice, and other events. As a counselor, she meets with students in a clinical setting. As an advocate, she assists students in obtaining academic and housing accommodations and supports them through the process of navigating reporting or administrative systems.
“I work often with marginalized communities because I represent multiple marginalized communities, and it’s a passion of mine,” said Wiggins, who is a woman of color. Wiggins helps connect students who might otherwise be deterred by monolithic systems to care. “We never just leave a student. We are there for them throughout their journey.”
On a night out over spring break, Olivia Jimenez (COL ‘20) was drugged for the second time in her life. She was going with a female friend to hang out with a group of Georgetown students that she hadn’t previously met. The group planned to drink before going out to a club. She had two drinks at the pregame, and from that point on, remembers nothing. People have put together bits and pieces of the story for her. She went to multiple clubs that night, of which she has no recollection. She woke up the next morning in a bed next to a guy who swore that nothing sexual happened. At that point, Jimenez had to take his word for it.
Jimenez met with Wiggins once in her counseling capacity. “I’m so happy that I did it,” she said. “I’ve only met with her once and still, it opened so many doors for me.”
“She really knows how to sort of get you to understand that you deserve healing,” Jimenez said. “Some things that happened to you… a) don’t define you and b) regardless of how serious you think they are, they affect you, and you need to deal with that, which has been huge for me at least.”
In the past, Jimenez felt uncomfortable speaking frankly about her experience with sexual assault, even in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
“Keeping it bottled up doesn’t help you, and it’s frustrating because you’re like, ‘I was put in this situation. Why do I have to deal with all this stuff now when it’s not your fault?’” Jimenez often struggled with self-blame. “Clearly people wanna roofie me or whatever— like that’s dumb— but that’s what I thought at one point. And understanding all those clichés are true. It’s not your fault. Opening up is okay.”
Jimenez was referred to Wiggins by a friend who had previously met with her. A junior in College who, preferred to speak anonymously using the pseudonym Melissa, discussed her relationship to Wiggins with the Voice “I was at a point where I was like, I needed people, and I needed people to talk to,” Melissa said.
Over time, Melissa realized that Wiggins could help her thrive in a way no one else could. “Yes, she would be kind, yes she would be affirming, but she would also tell me when I needed to do better, or do more work,” she said. “You know, she would push me right to that sweet spot where I would stretch and grow, and I think I really, really needed that.”
Melissa also attested to the value of talking with a clinician who represents underrepresented campus communities. “It really helps that she’s a woman of color because, as am I, and having that connection and someone who kind of understands similar experiences is really, really helpful.”
If a trusted friend hadn’t introduced Melissa to HES and testified to its helpfulness, she says that she wouldn’t have taken that first step through the door. As such, Melissa has recommended HES to multiple friends.
“I want to spread the gospel of Health Ed,” Melissa said.
But the gospel of HES extends beyond the walls of its office in Poulton Hall.
Jimenez thinks that although Georgetown doesn’t have a reputation for rampant sexual assault, it’s important to talk about the fact that it still happens on campus. “Even me talking about this, I feel like no one, really no one would. This is the first time I have, and no one really wants to talk about it. I think that is huge, and I think people like Jenn is someone that can open that discussion up to everyone,” Jimenez said.
Wiggins is also the staff advisor for the Sexual Assault Peer Educators (SAPE), a student group which hosts workshops educating students about sexual assault, bystander intervention, and consent. In that role, she is responsible for providing training and continuing education to all the facilitators, in addition to providing emotional support to facilitators (SAPErs), some who are sexual assault survivors themselves.
Under Wiggins’s leadership, SAPE facilitator membership has grown from 55 peer educators in her first year to 100 educators in her second year, prompting a cap on membership. SAPE facilitated workshops for around 1800 students during the last academic year.
To recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), Wiggins assembled a team of 12 students, some SAPE facilitators and others not, to organize programming throughout April. She created the theme of “Take it All Back,” the umbrella under which to organize all the events.
“We always have this notion that sexual assault happens at night, and so we’ve had movements like ‘Take Back the Night,’” said Wiggins. “But this year I was like, you know, why aren’t we taking it all back?”
The committee planned events throughout the month—most with co-sponsors but some on their own. One such event, spearheaded by Wiggins, was called “Negotiating Black Bodies,” which was a discussion of sexual assault and objectification in the black community, as well as the challenges in reporting those assaults.
Emma Rizk (COL ‘18) worked closely with Wiggins as a program assistant at HES and in planning SAAM programming.
Rizk originally intended to go into journalism, but has reconsidered in light of her work with Wiggins. “The work that I’ve done at Health Education Services and through the influence of a lot of clinicians, but really specifically through Jenn, I’ve been rethinking that a lot over the past year, especially as I’m about to graduate,” Rizk said. “I think I’m going to pursue social work now as a result.”
This year, Wiggins has also ensured that there are SAPErs present at the medical school, and she hopes to provide more peer education at the law center as well.
Wiggins has implemented programs centered around wellness in campus communities of color called Building Lives Around Sound Truth (BLAST) and Generating Lifeskills for Our Wellness (GLOW), which are for men and women of color, respectively.
“I actually started BLAST last year after there [were]a bunch of murders at the hands of police brutality against a lot of black men, and I was like, people need a space. I wanna build a space for this,” Wiggins said. She reached out to male students of color identified as campus leaders and collaborated with them to pilot BLAST. These discussions take place over dinner, about topics like healthy communication, coping tools, campus health resources, and healthy relationships.
“If you think about counseling and wellness services on campus, there’s not a diversity of providers. So I think some students who are marginalized don’t necessarily transition into those spaces. So [the workshops have]really been able to build community and give a space to address wellness,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins holds office hours in the LGBTQ Resource Center every Thursday at 4 p.m. Julian Haas, assistant director of the LGBTQ Resource Center, expressed appreciation at Wiggins’s willingness to bring her knowledge and resources to the center, a familiar and comfortable space for many.
“Jenn does not bring barriers into the work. She puts on her therapist hat and is able to provide direct services to students in need, regardless of who that person is or what their needs are,” Haas said. “She just gets there, and regardless of whether it’s like, the end of the day and she’s seen 12 other people, I’ve watched her make time for someone when they’re really in crisis.”
Jimenez wants the university to do a better job of publicizing its mental health resources. “I think people think of Health Education Services as good resources for STI testing, pregnancy tests, even other things involving health that are more medical, but there’s a lot of counseling in Health Education Services,” Jimenez said.
But in addition to its clinical work, HES has a portfolio of other services for students. Wiggins believes people usually easily recognize The Stall Seat Journal but rarely connect it to HES. She often finds herself talking to students who don’t realize the difference between HES and CAPS and often don’t know that HES services are free and confidential.
“I think Health Ed also helps with so many other things, so it doesn’t have to be sexual assault at all. It can be literally like you’re feeling so stressed and you don’t know what to do, or you’re not feeling good on this campus, or you have some sort of eating disturbance, or you are feeling this or that, and Health Ed is a space where you can air all of that,” Melissa said. “We’re all survivors of something.”
Wiggins emphasized the diversity of Georgetown students’ experiences. “I mean, there are students who bring so much with them, and I think we try to sometimes erase that with this idea of being a perfect Hoya, right?”
Wiggins posed a few questions for the student body to reflect on. “How do we work to not just put on this facade and keep smiling? How are we really promoting health and wellness in a sustainable way that makes the best Hoya that anyone can possibly be in their own way?”
Melissa had a partial answer.
“You need to want to help yourself before anyone else can help you,” Melissa said. “And it’s hard. It is so hard to take that first step. It is one of the hardest things that you will ever have to do, but once you take that first step, and you learn where to place your foot, the rest comes so easily, and suddenly you’ve run the fuckin’ marathon.”
Listen to the accompanying podcast, She Runs the World.
Image Credits: Design: Margaux Fontaine