Maria Michonski was hired as Project Director for Campus Sexual Assault Prevention through a three-year grant from the Department of Justice to help universities establish a position at their institution to addressDating/Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking Prevention.
Michonski comes to Sewanee with an accomplished background with a degree from St. Louis University in theology and women’s and gender studies, a master of divinity from Vanderbilt University, and a master’s level certificate in religion, gender, and sexuality. Michonksi says her work in the Women’s Center and the LGBTQI Life Office at Vanderbilt prepared her for her current position.
After finishing her degree, Michonski was unsure what path she wanted to take with her degrees. She knew that she wanted to work with students but did not know how her niche interests would come together into a particular job. However, upon discovering the job opportunity at Sewanee, Michonski knew it would be the perfect fit.
“When I saw the posting for my current job at Sewanee, I felt like the job was written for me and sounded amazing. I knew that I had been wanting to work with students,” she said.
Her desire to work in sexual assault prevention is also driven by her own experiences as a college student.
“I was sexually assaulted in college as well, and I came out in college as well. So it was personal experience that really made me want to see better for students like me,” Michonski said. .
As a result of this experience, Michonski has clear goals both for her time at Sewanee as the Project Director for Campus Sexual Assault Prevention, and when her time under the federal grant is up.
“One of my main goals would be to help the University get to a place where we’re planning for a future, where there are university resources dedicated to prevention work at the University so that this can continue independently from government funding,” she said.
She also acknowledges the need for drastic change in Sewanee’s campus culture and a massive reduction in sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, and stalking on campus.
“I want to see [a reduction sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and stalking] facilitated by providing basic sex ed, as there are so many folks who go to universities across the country who lack basic sexual education, basic education about consent and what healthy relationships look like, and basic education about how to advocate yourself in a relationship that is not operating in a healthy or just way,” she said.
Michonski emphasized another goal to help the University effectively address these issues and ensure accountability if they do occur.
“I think a great portion of prevention work is also effectively intervening after one of these incidents has occurred in a way that communicates to other folks on campus we take survivors seriously. We hold folks accountable to the extent that we are legally able to, and if this happens to you, you will be supported,” she said.
Michonski’s hiring created space for change within the University community.
“When survivors are supported, people are much more willing to engage in the prevention work side of things, and it helps to change cultural norms in whatever community you are in that facilitates these kinds of incidents,” she continued.
To create change, Michonski cannot tackle these issues on her own. She emphasized that students must step up,get involved, and speak to Michonski and other administrators about campus problems and students’ needs.
“If this work is led by me or led by administration, it’s already going to fail because the last time I was an undergraduate university student was five years ago. If we don’t have student leaders, particularly if we don’t have men involved in this project, we will not be able to meet everyone’s needs,” she said.
To engage with those on campus, Michonski hosts virtual coffee hours to discuss campus issues with students personally and has created a student subcommittee that reviews all of the events, programming, and training she plans to facilitate.
“Right now, the biggest thing students can do is speak up, reach out to me and say they want to have a virtual coffee date and talk about issues on campus. If they have time, get involved with my student subcommittee and then in the fall semester,” she said.
While Michonski is the point person for this project, she wants students to know that this work is being taken seriously on campus.
To discuss the topic of sexual assault, there’s a team of around 35 faculty, staff, and off-campus community partners who meet monthly. In these meetings, there are personnel from CAPS, UHS, Sewanee PD, and residential life, as well as Sylvia Gray, the director of Title IX, and the Dean of Students.
“There’s an investment in this project across campus,” Michonski said..
Michonski’s job may seem daunting, but it is just starting the change taking place at Sewanee, which cannot take place without student support.
“I just want students to know that they have power here and that my biggest goal is to see students feel empowered to make change themselves around these issues. It’s not going to all get done in three years, but this first three year period and the funding is like seed money for building something much bigger, more sustainable and that has a legacy at this university. I think students have a chance here to determine how Sewanee is discussed and known nationally for like decades to come,” she said.