Commencement 2017

Senior Samantha Skaller uses personal history to shift sexual assault culture on college campuses

Codie Yan | Staff Photographer

Skaller served on the national "It's On Us" Student Advisory Committee and has listened to more than 300 sexual assault survivors at SU.

UPDATED: May 9, 2017 at 3:51 p.m.

It was cold and 6 a.m. on a Saturday in April, yet Samantha Skaller managed to rally more than 50 volunteers to Syracuse University’s Quad.

Together the group created an installation for the “It’s On Us” campaign as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The grassy area in front of Hendricks Chapel was covered with 6,000 teal and orange Solo cups that took two hours to meticulously fill with sand so they wouldn’t fly away.

Skaller, an SU senior and Northeast regional leader for the “It’s On Us” campaign, helped last year to create the display for the first time. This year, about half a dozen on-campus groups signed on to set up the display — including ROTC, a group that tends to avoid “those difficult conversations” about sexual assault, said Sarah Epelman, one of two students taking over SU’s “It’s on Us” chapter next academic year.

But that’s what Skaller is known for — getting people to engage in difficult conversations and taking the next step toward tangible action.

In 2015, Skaller was selected as one of 17 members to serve on the national “It’s On Us” Student Advisory Committee. The committee’s mission is to empower people with the tools to end sexual assault on college campuses. The following year, Skaller was named the Northeast regional leader of the campaign and was tasked with overseeing “It’s On Us” chapters in the region.

In this role, Skaller said she loves reaching out to nontraditional partners, like those in ROTC, fraternities, sororities and music programs.

“They’re not majoring in women’s and gender studies. They’re not having these types of conversations as often as I feel like everybody should be having these conversations,” Skaller said.

These conversations are what create cultural change, Skaller said, and make campuses a place where sexual assault culture is not accepted.

During her sophomore year of college, Skaller was raped. She filed a Title IV report and went through the reporting process during her summer abroad.

But the university got it wrong, Skaller said. Her rapist was not held accountable.

Even her no-contact order was not held up, she said. For a year, Skaller saw the man who raped her around her home college and in her classes. He showed up to events she put on and she spotted him in the crowd in Goldstein Auditorium when former Vice President Joe Biden delivered a speech in November 2015 about the importance of fighting sexual assault.

He was wearing an “It’s On Us” T-shirt.

On that day, Skaller was unshakeable to the outside world, said Tula Goenka, a professor of television, radio and film who serves on the Chancellor’s Task Force on Sexual and Relationship Violence. Skaller spoke in front of thousands of her peers with Biden by her side, looking at her in admiration.

“She’s a fierce woman and has really come into her power because of what has happened to her,” Goenka said. “Many people don’t recover from that. It takes a lot of strength and courage. Samantha has really gone from victim to survivor and has been an advocate.”

Skaller’s rapist graduated last year. Not having him around during her final year has been, she said in one word: liberating.

“Instead of me being so angry and my activism being fueled by anger like last year because I was so disappointed in the system, after I …”

Skaller paused for a moment.

“Wow, I’m so proud,” she said to herself.

“… after I forgave myself for losing my case is when I was able to heal past the trauma of losing my case and be able to do this activism in more of an accessible and less angry way,” she said.

At times, Skaller said, continually sharing her own narrative is exhausting. She can do this work without having the experience of a survivor, she said, but she’s grateful every time she shares her story that her experience is validated.

Skaller has spoken to more than 300 sexual assault survivors at SU, she said. After every talk, at least one person reaches out to her. They come up to Skaller, shoot her an email or direct message her on social media.

“I’m honored that people feel comfortable coming up to me, and I’m not going to lie, it does take a huge toll,” Skaller said. “I feel like I’m carrying all of their stories with me, but at the same time, I wouldn’t change anything because it’s been such a privilege.”

After graduation, Skalller will pursue her master’s in musicology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and will eventually pursue a Ph.D. Her goal is to be a college professor who serves as a role model for students and teaches them in an intersectional way.

Though her time at SU is winding down, Skaller is still in full motion. Within the last week she has met with student groups, faculty and administrators to propel her work on sexual assault awareness and prevention forward.

One of Skaller’s final marks as an undergraduate student is helping to establish a partnership with the Department of Public Safety and the Syracuse Police Department. DPS Chief Bobby Maldonado reached out to her after one of her presentations, and now Skaller is helping to revamp the line of questioning for victims and survivors of assault. This includes reconfiguring the system so Title IV is held up and reworking restructure defense programs so they are inclusive.

“With all the things she has done on this campus it’s going to be difficult to understand her impact until she has left,” Goenka said.

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