Victims’ advocate finds solace in her calling

By MOLLY WRIGHT/Montana State News

In a culture where one in four women will be victims of sexual assault and the rate of reporting is less than five percent, the last thing you’d associate with such horrifying statistics is hope. But talk to Alanna Sherstad, the VOICE Center coordinator at Montana State University, and you’ll not only admire her unwavering optimism, you’ll be infected by it.

The VOICE Center is a confidential resource for students, faculty, and staff at the university to come receive support and resources for cases of sexual assault and relationship violence.

This is Sherstad’s sixth year as coordinator. Before she moved to Bozeman, she worked at a rape center in Fort Collins, Colorado, for 10 years. But her reason for involvement comes long before her work experience. Raped at age 14 by someone she considered her best friend, Sherstad kept quiet about the event until college, where she took a women’s studies class in which sexual assault was discussed.

“It was the first time I’d heard a conversation about it,” says Sherstad, “There was no hiding it. I didn’t feel alone.”

She revealed her past in a paper to her professor, who helped her get involved with an advocacy program. However, it wasn’t until her internship with a rape prevention center, advocating on sexual assault prevention to local high school students, that she realized this was what she wanted to devote her life to.

Her career realization was met with a brutal truth. The man who had raped her had also raped six other girls, one of whom subsequently killed herself. Sherstad knew she had to make these events part of her dialogue for prevention.

“The impact this one person had on six, or maybe even more girls, who never shared their story? That’s scary,” said Sherstad. “There is no shame in being a survivor.”

Although her original plan was to go into counseling, Sherstad likes the flexibility and balance of working in a crisis center.

“It’s a place to voice stories,” she said.

Her favorite part of working at the VOICE Center is working with students on campus.

“They have these lightbulb moments, where things just start to click. It’s exciting to watch,” she said. “Students have this excitement, this zest for life. I admire that idealism.”

“They inspire me daily.”

Student volunteers at the VOICE Center share that same admiration.

“Alanna has the ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ quote hanging in her office. I’ve never met anyone who embodies that more than her,” said Anne Zander, student and VOICE Center Advocate.

“I love Alanna. I’m honored to work with someone as selfless and giving as her,” said Ryan Chauner, another student advocate.

That inspiration is needed for the struggles Sherstad faces in her job.

“I think advocating in a culture that doesn’t support survivors is hard. It’s a tough system,” said Sherstad.

Victim blaming and butting heads with campus administration have proven to be tough obstacles, as has keeping up interest and morale in the Not In Our House campaign, a movement to stop and prevent sexual assault at Montana State University led by campus clubs and organizations.

Due to turnover from the original members, the campaign has fizzled and lost momentum. Sherstad is hopeful that, because this university is the only campus nationwide to organize such a movement, new energy and ownership from the students will help bring it back to life.

The notable lack of men who work in the office is also changing.

“For a long time, this was considered a ‘women’s issue’ only,” said Sherstad. Men were not welcomed in the fight against sexual assault, and therefore chose not to actively involve themselves. Sherstad wants to make sure all genders are identified at the VOICE Center, so that anyone who comes through their doors can feel welcomed.

“You also want to make sure the men that are involved are doing so for the right reasons,” she said. The importance of self-reflection and having these difficult conversations is crucial for men to do to be involved.

Overall, Sherstad is hopeful in future generations.

“It’s a slow change,” she said. “But there’s hope.”

“You can hear the change in conversations. People are willing to look at these issues,” said Sherstad. Comparing it to the push to wear one’s seatbelt and stopping tobacco use on campus, she hopes the same kind of active push can be made for sexual assault.

“Education creates lifelong activists,” a smiling Sherstad said.

– Edited by Jeremy Gould

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