A tall, lithe woman with long blonde tresses in a sparkly black dress talked to a packed auditorium on the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus this past weekend about some ugly realities: the sexual harassment, sexual violence and discrimination directed at female students and staff on the campus.
In a monologue titled “Pretty Girl has a Name,” Embry-Riddle aerospace engineering junior Rachel Rise delivered what some viewers described as a jaw-dropping performance as part of the 4AM production of “The Vagina Monologues.”
In her own words, the student with an exemplary academic and campus leadership record talked of professors who dismissed her as a “pretty girl” or suggested her gender was too fragile to handle the academic rigor despite evidence to the contrary.
She pondered whether her looks, rather than her mind, impacted how professors graded her work.
“I know I’m pretty, but I want to be seen for more than that … I’m also smart, caring, driven and determined,” said the aspiring astronaut in an interview following the provocative show that left local leaders praising her willingness to “speak her truth.”
The native of a town outside Portland, Oregon’ monologue also delivered a disturbing reality about sexual violence on the university campus during her three years.
“I personally know four women – four- who have been sexually assaulted on this campus and have reported the incidents like they were told,” Rise proclaimed in her monologue. “All of their aggressors walked free.”
University officials will suggest they must be fair in their hearing processes related to such incidents, she said.
“I don’t see how zero of four is fair,” she said.
The university posts pamphlets in the women’s bathrooms about how to report incidents of sexual violence, tells them the location of safety phones, and to avoid walking alone at night, she said.
“Heaven forbid they tell the boys anything, or put pamphlets in their bathroom,” Rise said as part of the monologue. “Heaven forbid, they tell anyone not to rape people, and no, a two-hour seminar during orientation is not enough.”
Show Director Heidi Hampton said she opted to add Rise’s monologue to the scripted show – the show’s creator Eve Ensler permits productions to add up to three original monologues – because it was such a powerful, personal commentary. Each of the monologues is intended to be a call to action, she said.
Two non-profit agency executive directors who were in the audience on Saturday night – Jessi Hans of the Coalition for Compassion and Justice and Carole Benedict of U.S. VETS – praised Rise for stepping up and speaking out.
“I think that took a massive amount of courage … and it’s that kind of courage that will create change,” Hans said.
“I felt it was incredibly brave for her to share her experiences,” said Benedict who has a background in working with victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Embry-Riddle is not the only college campus to face these issues, but Benedict said she knows university leaders to be people of integrity who she suspects will take this as constructive criticism to do even more to educate its students and staff how to prevent this culture from tainting its image as a high-caliber educational institution.
Embry-Riddle’s Associate Dean of Students Liz Frost agreed that Rise showed courage in speaking out about her concerns, and need not fear any university backlash.
The university has strict policies related to investigation of sexual violence, harassment or any form of discrimination, Frost explained. She was clear the university investigates any and all such complaints.
Not all students opt to report to law enforcement, or complete the university’s hearing process to obtain information from all parties involved, Frost said. Her office always provides those reporting incidents their options, be that reporting to law enforcement or seeking other resources. The university respects the wishes of the reporting party unless the assault occurred to someone under age 18 or others on campus are in danger, she said.
Prescott Police Lead Officer Dave Fuller said his department investigated one reported sexual assault in September 2016. The Yavapai County Attorney’s office declined to prosecute.
Embry-Riddle has long been proactive with its educational awareness related to these topics, holding numerous events throughout the year to inform all of its students of their rights and to provide a culture that prohibits such behavior, Frost said. Her office staff instruct all students during orientation, as well as doing special presentations for fraternities and sororities, sports teams, clubs and military organizations. They also host public events throughout the year.
“The most important thing is to bring education to our campus on sexual violence as a whole because not only does sexual violence happen against women, but it can happen against men,” Frost said.
Embry-Riddle’s student body is 75 percent male and 25 percent female.
PART OF THE SOLUTION
Producer John Duncan said he admires that Rise wants to be part of the solution at a place where she is invested as a student and a campus activist, leader and employee.
“I feel the reason she did this was because she loves the institution,” Duncan said. “She just thinks it needs to be better. She has a lot of support from faculty and staff, and that is an amazing thing … The biggest compliment to her is that she doesn’t want history to repeat itself.”
Rise said she opted to be the voice for those who feared they have no voice.
“I didn’t do this out of contempt or spite toward Embry-Riddle,” said Rise, who this summer will be an intern NASA’s jet propulsion facility in Pasadena, California. “I love Embry-Riddle’s mission to prepare leaders to have wildly successful careers in the future. We turn out fabulous graduates.
Yet she believes part of the job at this university, and every university, should also be about holding people accountable for their actions, imposing consequences for those who break the rules, and “bringing justice where it is needed.”
“I did this in hopes that Embry-Riddle will take the next step,” Rise said. “I know we can do better.”
EDITOR'S NOTE - This article has been updated to add Embry-Riddle's response, which did not make it into the print version. Also to correct the spelling of the actress' name.