The Aurora Center’s Unsung Heroes
The staff members and student volunteers who run The Aurora Center
By Tala Alfoqaha
Located in Appleby 117, the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education constitutes one of the few on-campus institutions that appears to inspire a consensus among students: it is essential. And rightly so—the Aurora Center provides the 500-600 individually seeking its support annually with an extensive range of free and confidential services. Yet, unlike many campus resources, the services Aurora provides address highly personal, painful, and sensitive topics. No formula or pre-written script can succeed in supporting each victim-survivor with their individual experience. And for the seven full-time staff members and upwards of 80 student volunteers who contribute their time, energy, and passion to The Aurora Center, the work they engage in is anything but impersonal.
“Much of the time, it’s providing some degree of emotional support or giving them a space to process,” said Bronte Stewart-New, Aurora’s Legal Advocacy Coordinator.
Stewart-New’s position encompasses a variety of different roles. She coordinates the advocacy series, provides crisis support, helps clients asses their options, responds to a 24-hour helpline*, and co-facilitates victim-survivor support groups. And yet, despite this slew of responsibilities, “I still wait tables,” Stewart-New remarked. “I enjoy interacting with people.”
In this line of work, a knack for communicating appears to be integral. Enter: Katie Eichele. Passionate and attentive, Eichele currently serves as the Director of the Aurora Center, meaning that she is a driving force behind both the day-to-day and long-term operationsthrough developing policy, engaging in strategic planning, dealing with the budget, and advocating for victim-survivors at all institutional levels. While Eichele’s role is encompassing and complicated, her purpose is clear. “If I don’t get up,” she explained, “they win.”
Since she began this high-profileposition in 2012, Eichele has made her mark on Aurora, blending her background in communications and student conductwith her deep understanding of social justice and policy to advocate for victim-survivors with full institutional support.
“When I entered the role [...] Aurora was known for really good work,” she said. While the current broad-based support and influence of The Aurora Center may seem effortless, she continued on to explain, “But offices didn’t like to work with us. We were controversial.”
Indeed, The Aurora Center originated from controversy: in 1986, the alleged sexual assault of an 18-year-old woman by three Gopher basketball players prompted then-President Ken Keller to establish a center dedicated to dealing with sexual violence. Since then, with over a million dollars in federal grants from the Department of Justice’s Office for Violence Against Women and increased institutional funding, Aurora has been able to greatly expand its services and scope.
Yet the impressive growth required more than just money. Early on, Eichele identified the campus-wide hesitance to collaborate with Aurora as an issue to tackle.
“I essentially went around [to all the partner offices] very humbly. And I got yelled at a lot, even though I was brand new,” Eichele recalled. “But I would tell them: With me here, we are going to be collaborative. With me here, we are going to listen to each other. With me here, we are not going to shame each other, but inspire each other to be our best.” She leaned forward and dropped her voice, “And that changed everything.”
Today, Aurora’s core mission includes four main pillars: direct services, education, inter-departmental collaboration, and developmental opportunities. Of these four, the center is most widely known for the broad realm of direct services that it offers to victim-survivors. These services include counseling, academic support, medical support, housing accommodations, assistance with law enforcement, and legal support.
According to Eichele, clients most frequently request crisis counseling and support. “We call it cope and hope,” she explained. “Give them hope that they’re not alone, that they have options. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a letter to a professor.”
As a co-facilitator of Aurora’s weekly support groups, Stewart-New is familiar with the importance of providing spaces that validate victim-survivors. “Sexual assault can be very isolating, especially when people are working within systems where they’re met with disbelief,” Stewart-New said. “The support groups are a really unique space where people are able to come together and build some solidarity with other people who have had similar experience.”
While the members join because of trauma, they relate through communal healing and support. “It really is my favorite part of the week,” said Stewart-New. “It’s so empowering.”
Yet responding to crisis constitutesonly one of Aurora’s four pillars.“Advocacy response and prevention go hand in hand,” said Paul Ang, Aurora’s Prevention Program Coordinator.
A Proactive Approach
Ang, alongside the center’s Men’s Engagement Coordinator Malik Mitchell, works to create, define, and implement Aurora’s violence prevention education. Currently, the series Aurora offers is called “The Power of Respect” and can be requested by student groups, University offices, and other on-campus entities.
While Ang has worked to prevent gender-based for over 10 years now, his decision to broach this line of work was somewhat unexpected. “Growing up, I hadn’t really had many conversations around gender-based violence or consent,” he explained. After joining a dialogue group about masculinity, however, Ang realized his own personal stake in the fight against gender-based violence.
And with Aurora’s Power of Respect curriculum, his objectives are clear. “We’re trying to create a community that not only supports survivors but also doesn’t tolerate the overt and implicit underlying behaviors that all make up the wider spectrum of gender-based violence,” said Ang. The workshops are facilitated by staff and another integral part of The Aurora Center’s structure: student volunteers.
Students Stepping Up
Violence Prevention Educators constitute one of Aurora’s three volunteer positions, alongside Direct Service Advocates and Special Project Volunteers. Similar to Direct Service Advocates, who work Aurora’s 24-hour helpline, VPEs must complete a 40-hour certification training offered at the beginning of each spring.
“It was a pretty intensive training,” said Sam Wheeler, a sophomore volunteering as a Violence Prevention Educator, “But I learned a lot and met a wide variety of people of all these different majors and identities.”
Now, Wheeler facilitates at least five presentations a semester to groups across campus. “There’s a strong focus on open-ended discussion and not shaming others,” she explained.
After hearing about The Aurora Center and being interested in learning more about sexual assault prevention, Wheeler applied to volunteer in the October of her freshman year.
“As a woman in STEM, I thought I could probably bring something to the table,” Wheeler said. “I love being a part of a place that’s working to make the [University] a better place.”
Students around the University appear to be interested in bringing their own experiences to the center. “I predominantly focus on the fraternity new member seminar ones,” said sophomore Violence Prevention Educator Carter Ridel. “It’s a culture I’m in as well, so being able to bridge the gap is something I’m trying to focus on.”
And in the process of educating others, Ridel acknowledged that his own perception shifted as well. “Obviously, as a white, cis- member, I don’t have the same experiences as many of the people I work with,” he said. “One of the really important things I realized is being able to recognize my own bias.”
To Give and to Get Back
This sense of personal growth is a common thread among the experiences of Aurora’s staff members and student volunteers.
Stewart-New has worked with The Aurora Center for a total of six years--a staff member for two and a volunteer for four. “I was a transfer student, and so I never really felt like I was fully a college student,” she confessed. “The Aurora center was really the place where I found a sense of community.”
And this strong community, as any, is built by its community members. Yet when reflecting on what impact she had on The Aurora Center, Stewart-New seemed taken aback. “That’s a big one,” she laughed, “My coworkers say that I bring a lot of humor to the office. I don’t know if I agree with that.”
She addresses an important facet of this work: despite the difficult and often disheartening nature of Aurora’s advocacy, humor, resilience, and healing still flourish.
“This is a story that just happened last week,” Eichele begins with a smile. She recounted how a former client emailed her crediting Aurora’s advocates for her ability to graduate. The client continued on to explain that she now had a stable job and was actually getting married. And instead of a gift registry, her and her partner were asking her guests to donate to Aurora.
“We didn’t give her all the answers,” Eichele maintained, “but we gave her enough momentum to find a reason to pick herself up. And those kinds of moments are just like...” For the first time, Eichele seemed at a loss for words. “Wow,” she finishes.
*24-hour Helpline: (612) 626-9111