Woman on a Mission

Woman on a Mission

By Glenn Antonucci

VIP Center’s Ward helps lead Creighton’s charge against sexual violence

Lauren Ward arrived on the campus of Penn State in 1999, eager and wide-eyed as any 18-year-old beginning her journey into higher education and adulthood.

She had come to study criminal justice, to join an elite collegiate fencing team and, in that storied undergraduate tradition of discovery, to search out her place in the world.

For Ward, that search quickly took an irreversible detour. She was sexually assaulted in the first semester of her freshman year. Since that time, she has shared her story publicly. She says she was attending an off-campus party, drank too much and passed out. She awoke and found herself being raped by another partygoer — a young man she hardly knew, but who would linger in her psyche for years to come.

Suddenly, she’d found herself with a new identity. She was a victim.

That stigma, Ward would find, can be consuming.

“The victimization becomes the lens through which you see everything, at least for a period of time,” she says, from her office in Creighton University’s Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) Center. “And what’s so interesting is that anyone who you tell, it’s often the lens through which they see you.”

In the years that followed the assault, Ward would undertake a phenomenal personal journey, transforming from victim, to survivor, to a woman on a mission.

Today, she leads Creighton’s VIP Center, the aim of which is two-fold: to provide confidential advocacy to survivors of sexual violence, dating violence and stalking, and — crucially — to prevent these incidents through proactive education and awareness programs. Included among these is the Green Dot Program, which seeks to reduce violence by engaging bystanders and promoting positive, proactive behaviors.

Another is an annual “Take Back the Night” rally and march held in the spring, which this year drew nearly 400 people to the steps of St. John’s Church. The event coincides with a national month of action and awareness dedicated to ending sexual violence in all forms. In one of her early acts as Creighton’s associate director for violence intervention and prevention, Ward reinstated the University’s hosting of the event.

In its approach to victim advocacy, the VIP Center — established on campus in 2011 and steered by Ward since 2014 — takes its critical cue from the Ignatian mantra of cura personalis, or care for the individual person.

“We take the concept literally, providing individualized support to each student, faculty and staff member who needs us,” she says. “Sometimes that simply means we are there to listen. Other times, it means we take action. Always, we meet survivors of violence and abuse ‘where they’re at’ — in other words, we are here to serve their objectives, and no one else’s.”

That tailored support can take the shape of helping a victim report an incident to authorities, on or off campus; assisting with applying for protection orders; helping to navigate through class absences, coursework extensions and housing matters; and, for secondhand survivors, resources and support on how to assist a friend, partner, roommate or family member.

As word has spread about the VIP Center, and Ward and her colleagues traverse campus giving prevention and awareness presentations — nearly 100 of them in the last reporting year, reaching more than 6,500 students, faculty and staff — the demand for the center’s services has increased markedly. Utilization of the center has quadrupled since 2011.

Is that statistic a cause for concern? Yes, Ward says. But, she explains, it doesn’t mean that Creighton has a unique problem with these issues.

“Absolutely it’s a problem here. It’s a problem on every college campus and in every community nationwide,” she says. “Anywhere, especially any college campus, where they tell you it’s not a problem, run screaming, because they are hiding something.”

What does make Creighton unique, at least among other Nebraska colleges and universities, is that it’s the only one with a full-time, campus-based advocate for victims of sexual violence. And Creighton employs two such advocates.

It’s testament, Ward says, to the University’s commitment to addressing its slice of a national epidemic — an investment in protecting the members of its community; one that isn’t beholden to vanishing funds tied to grants.

“We’re not subject to a lot of ebb and flow with grant funding, because Creighton has committed almost entirely the funds and the space and all of the resources it takes for what we do here,” she says.

What the VIP Center does, and precisely how it spreads awareness, prevention and support across Creighton’s campus, is a continual work in progress, Ward says.

“There’s always more we can do,” she says. “There’s always room for improvement, and we’re always tweaking and improving our victim response and prevention.”

By the numbers, the center is covering a lot of ground. In the 2015-2016 academic year, the most recent reporting period, it served 145 survivors across all types of victimization — 94 firsthand survivors and 51 of the secondhand variety. The vast majority — 121 — were students; 15 were faculty and staff members, and 11 had other Creighton affiliations. Ward herself logged nearly 1,500 direct contacts with these survivors.

Combined with the work involved coordinating the VIP Center’s prevention programs and events, it makes for a very full plate for Ward, and requires an unrelenting dedication to the center’s mission.

And while the fuse for that dedication was lit long ago, and enflamed by her own encounter with sexual violence back in college and subsequent recovery, she is careful to point out that firsthand experience with victimization is not a prerequisite in her line of work.

“I had to go through my own recovery, because I’d had victimization, to get to a point where I could ever hold space for someone else,” Ward says. “But the last person that it’s about is me, and you don’t need to be directly exposed to this to care about it.”

That point is key, she says, to ensure entire communities — not just the victims — join the cause against sexual violence on campuses.

“How else are you going to get men, who are the minority on the victim side, to care about this, when we need them at the front of this?” she says. “The majority of women aren’t victimized. How are we going to get them to rally with us and be a part of this effort? It’s only up to survivors, then? To fix what happened to them? That doesn’t make sense.

“In a way, a lot of people validate what you do because you’ve been there,” Ward says. “And it’s unnecessary. We should all be really fired up.”

Considering the pace she keeps, the sheer volume of activity she leads and participates in, and the undeniable passion in her voice, she is undoubtedly fired up. But, she points out, it takes an administration committed to change and care of its community to make it all click.

“I’ve always said, I don’t work at places I’m not proud to work,” Ward says. “I’m not going to be able to be at the forefront of violence response and prevention if I don’t believe in what that university is doing.”

With the University firmly behind her, Ward says she is living out her “dream scenario” — a potent blend of advocacy, prevention and events, all of which inform each other, make the VIP Center effective, “and make us effective advocates.”

That’s not to say there aren’t difficult days.

“On the days that are really hard, I’m taken back to the comments I read in our surveys we send at the end of every semester, and how many students have said that our services have saved their lives,” Ward says.

“We can’t survive for them. Sometimes we wish we could, but that’s not what we do,” she says. “What we do is fill their cups. We fill their toolboxes and teach them to use every single thing in there.

“We help people find their power and get safe,” she says. “But we can’t do this alone. We need to keep getting more people to show up, be supportive and care about this terrible thing that no one wanted to talk about before.”

In that endeavor, Ward — the one-time victim, then survivor then, ultimately, relentless advocate — has found her mission.