June 3, 2014

A four year struggle

Sexual assault survivor relays four years of dealing with her assault and the aftermath.

All throughout high school, the University of Chicago was my first-choice college. I dreamed of attending the institution so famed for its quirky culture and prized academics. I dreamed of being free to explore the city, new thoughts, and my identity. Imagine my delight when I was admitted! I was going to attend the University of Chicago with multiple academic scholarships under my belt and I was just waiting to get out of my hometown and the mundane life that went with it. I was on the path to achieving my lifelong dream of becoming an academic powerhouse, showing the world that an underrepresented minority woman like myself could actually “do it.”

This dream and all those ideations of freedom that came with it fell to a violent, crashing fall in June 2012.

It was then that I reported several sexual assaults at the hands of my ex-boyfriend to the school administration. After an “informal mediation” arbitrated by the dean of students in the College, my rapist promptly left to graduate. I was then left to deal with my emotions regarding, as the dean so eloquently put it, this “dispute between students.”  To deal with this turmoil, the dean had me see the resident trauma expert at Student Counseling Services. This “expert” ended up telling me that “You should probably expect something when you sleep in a bed with a guy.”

After a long summer, the school year began again, and I was facing new challenges. Going to class became harder and harder. I could barely finish my assignments. My extracurricular participation grew nonexistent. I was slowly morphing into an unrecognizable creature, rife with sadness, disgust, and caging emptiness.

In the fall of 2012, I saw on a bulletin board that the Maroon was conducting an investigative series regarding sexual assault. This was my chance, I thought hopefully to myself, to be free from this paradoxically painful yet numb emptiness.

The articles came out later that fall, but I still did not feel what I so desperately hoped to feel. This emptiness, so to speak, was compounded by an approach from the dean herself, who e-mailed me that her “recollection of our conversation was quite different.”

This emptiness grew and grew in me because I knew something was not right in how my case had been handled. I decided to seek legal counsel, who then confirmed my worst fear: The University I so loved and so trusted had violated my rights as a student attending a federally funded institution. I then decided to make one of the most heartbreaking decisions of my life, only second to reporting my assailant to the University: I was going to file a Title IX complaint against my dream school, the University of Chicago.

I knew I had to do it because the school had gone against its very motto. How was my life to be enriched if the very knowledge of the policies were so carefully hidden from me?

Indeed, the process has been incredibly grueling but also incredibly validating. The simple act of the government deeming my case worthy of investigation, let alone the entire campus worthy of investigation, has been instrumental in me taking steps to fill that numb emptiness. But some administrators and colleagues have been much less than understanding. Many have attempted to excuse the dean’s illegal behavior as a “misunderstanding,” a gross understatement of her choices to inflict trauma on those in crisis in the interest of the University. Her actions have had a real effect on me. Because of her choices, I have had to take leaves of absence and have been unable to complete any assignments on time. The trauma and pain she herself has caused me makes this situation far different from a “misunderstanding.”

Despite this pushback, I have received an incredible outpouring of support from current students and alumni and even from those with no affiliation to the University. This support makes this hellish task more bearable and serves as a reminder as to why it was deeply worth it.

Even with the overwhelmingly positive support from others, I still mourn those dreams of academic grandeur I once had. I always dreamtedof doing something great in college, and, in a small way and with the help of countless others, I have. I have sacrificed my story to help bring to light decades of mistreatment of survivors at the hands of the University and to demand long-needed reform with pressure from powers even greater than the University.

Although I have given this intensely personal sacrifice to the institution, I will likely never receive the shining awards those who are involved in lots of student organizations or those who achieve excellent grades do. I will not be graduating with my cohort, and I may never get to cross that vast stage to receive that certificate for all my hard work, something my assailant did with ease. I may never get the warm words of appreciation that the dean of students in the College received in honor of her several years of “service.” I may never receive the approval or thanks from the University I have given my life to. I may never fill that painful, ever-present emptiness.

Sometimes, though, when I’m walking around campus, the wind blows onto my face and the sun shines upon my hair. I look up and marvel at the Neo-Gothic architecture with the innocence of the girl who originally matriculated here four years ago dreaming of academic greatness. It was architecture that was once so marvelous and enigmatic to me, reminding me of my enormous academic potential. This very architecture has grown familiar and warm, yet punctuated with painful memories.

In those moments, so fleeting and rare, I am more than a survivor of sexual assault. I am more than someone who endures mental illness. I am more than an activist for sexual assault reform. I am more than a student who complained to the federal government about the University’s infamous and long-standing mishandlings. In those moments, I am everything that a young man, this institution, and so many others have tried to quell. I am human. I am home. I am free.

Olivia Ortiz is a fourth-year in the College.