How My Sexual Assault Changed Graduation For Me

Photo: Courtesy of Dani Blum..
Eight months into my freshman year, I woke up with my face pressed into a wad of paper towels. I tried to stop the panic by focusing on the details: the bite of tile against my feet. The urinal a foot away. I could feel the bruises through my jeans and the the twinge in my pulse and the way my palms shook when I tried to push myself up from the floor. But I didn’t want to label what happened the night before. I walked barefoot up three flights of stairs to a friend’s dorm room. For the next week, I lived under blankets, throwing my quilt over my face when my roommate walked in.
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Three years later, I can name what happened to me. I was sexually assaulted on St. Patrick’s Day of 2015. I’d limped to the closest safe place – the men’s bathroom – in the hours after. I have lived through three anniversaries, trying to figure out whether to celebrate or mourn or ignore the date altogether. Graduation brings that same sense of uncertainty: I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. When I walk across the stage to get my diploma, I’m walking away from my dream school — a place where my friends live seconds away and my writing professors bring Girl Scout cookies to class. The routine is comforting, familiar: I know, down to the minute, how long it will take me to walk to the bar or gym or store. But I’m also leaving the place where I was raped. Living on this picture–perfect campus — where street lights bathe the leaves and the buildings look like gingerbread houses and a giant statue that says LOVE sits in the centre of the green — has been a constant reminder of my trauma.
Before there was #metoo, there was just me: crinkling my cup at parties while frat boys palmed my back, leaking sweat under my clothes in a locked bathroom while I pulled out my phone to read about Emma Sulkowicz or Brock Turner or any of the 23.1% of all undergraduate women who survive sexual violence. In the first months after my assault, I didn’t know who I could tell. I didn’t trust. A friend who walked in on me sobbing the morning after told me I was being dramatic after a “one night stand”; another kept asking why I didn’t report it. I forced myself to stop showing I was upset. I swallowed my anger. I tried to move on.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
I’m excited to enter the adult world at a time when we can actually talk about assault. But it’s been terrifying to read about the pervasiveness of rape and harassment in “the real world,” divorced from the templates of frats and dorm rooms and 20–year–olds that I’ve seen repeated over and over again at Penn.
I’ve constructed happiness and healing out of a place that isn’t safe. More than anything else I’ve accomplished on this campus, I’m proud that I stayed. I didn’t drop out or transfer or run from the place I was attacked: I’m still here, and I’m stronger for it. But I think, all the time, about who I’d be if I hadn’t been assaulted. Maybe that version of myself would graduate with more honours or friends or confidence, with a lilt in her step as she accepted her diploma. I watched that girl get ripped out of me, and graduation means grieving her, too. But I’m leaving Penn as someone who is strong, resilient, unashamed. I refuse to see myself as broken. I’ve built who I am.
When I think about what comes next, I feel nauseous and giddy. But I also feel powerful. I have a future because I fought for one. I won’t be silenced. I can’t be stopped.
Dani Blum recently graduated with degrees in English and Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, she plans to move to New York to work in media.
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