By Anna Püsök
The Bairnwick Women’s Center has always been a safe place on campus for students. The purpose of the Wick is to foster community, encourage communication by various events, provide platforms for student voices, and demand change on campus against racism, sexism, and homophobia. In addition, within Sewanee, residents of the Wick offer peer support 24/7 with the help of the members of the Peer Health House.
Peggy Owusu-Ansah (C’23), a new resident of the Wick, said, “The purpose of the peer support is to provide support to students with an alternative to, for example, going straight to the faculty or staff, or if students need any resources, we are there to support you. We help from asking resources to file an actual report and anything in between.”
Sewanee currently has 17 peer health supporters who went through training before the semester started. “Mainly, the first half of it would be support training, and the second half would be Wick training,” said Owusu-Ansah.
She continued, “On the first day, we sat down with a guest speaker, and she talked about the differences between sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual violence, for example, and we had trauma training as well.”
Owusu-Ansah further explained, “We learnt about the different responses to trauma since not everybody goes through trauma the same ways. Anything can trigger somebody, and how to be safe around those triggers. On the second day, we deeply got into sexual assault and how to report. We went through the new Title IX policies with Dr. Sylvia Gray, as well.”
The peer support system looks different from past years. COVID-19 regulations set up challenges to the Wick and their support system, but they found creative ways to still provide students the help they need.
“We had peer health for years in the past. Before this, it was a cell phone that everybody had, and then there was a landline in the house.” Owusu-Ansah said, “Now, we have a new system: we use our personal cell phones, since we are both remote and on campus, so we want everybody to have the chance to be on call and actually be able to help others.”
Peer Health Support is not only for students on campus; the supporters encourage anyone, both on and off-campus, to reach out to them. The new system allows all students to reach a peer supporter 24/7. Owusu-Ansah said, “If someone is on the call, that person is available all day. If there is an emergency, even the professors know that the supporters are needed, so they are really available any time.”
She continued, “But it doesn’t have to be a case of emergency, we literally handle anything. If you need to talk to someone, we are there. If people don’t talk about things, later it affects their mental health,” finished Owusu-Ansah.
When asked about this year’s changes, Puja Basnet (C’20), co-director of the Wick, who is studying remotely, said, “We wanted to focus on how we can reach out to both students on campus and remote, and we [the Wick] have remote students too.” She further explained, “Each week, we have a two hour long meeting with the Wick as a whole, so that remote students can still have a strong online presence.”
This semester, their events look different, but the Wick makes sure they involve students both on-campus and remote. Basnet said, “Each event, we think about how it would be the best to reach out to students. Would it be better virtually? Would it be better in-person? Even if we do in person events, how can we involve remote students too?” “This year,” she said, “the Wick’s theme is Rising in Resilience, which describes the situation well.”
Basnet continued, “We carefully picked the residents of the house and we know that we can trust them, they will be dedicated to our mission during this time too, and they will be great supporters.”
The Wick’s application system also focuses on the peer health support system for the following year. Basnet said, “The application process is in the spring semester, and starts with an online application. Students answer a survey with questions like why you want to live in the Wick, how are you connected to what we are about, and to our support, and then we do interviews.”
She continued, “The interviews are with the previous and the new co-directors of the house, and with Dr. Mansker, our faculty advisor. The interview reflects on what they said on the survey. For example, they said on the form that they’re going to do this as a resident, and we ask them how they are going to do it, and what ideas they can bring to the Wick,” finished Basnet.
Even though the theme house is called the “women’s center,” that doesn’t mean only women can apply. “Last year, we had two men in the house, this year we have one. It is open to anyone who wants to be a part of the Wick, be a part of our mission, and to someone who’s connected to what we advocate about,” said Basnet.
The Wick created a website (linked here), so if students need help, they can reach out to them anonymously. They can also schedule in-person meetings, if somebody on campus needs help.