Christine Szaraz knows that battling sexual assault on the Stony Brook campus is not a singular effort.
The new Violence Intervention and Prevention Committee, a brainchild of Szaraz and the Center for Prevention and Outreach, aims to gather disparate student efforts under one banner.
“I wanted to create a forum for students to be able to come together with other folks who either want to get into these things or already have,” she said, “and to build on each other’s efforts.”
Szaraz is a counselor at CPO who is known for her informal, relatable and empathetic relationship with students.
“She is very easy to be with,” Naima Yeye, a senior sociology major and intern for CPO said. “I’m learning a lot from her because she is a great mentor and really wants to reach out to students.”
John Martin, a guidance assistant at CPO and Stony Brook alumnus, credits Szaraz for the verbal dexterity needed to connect with college students.
“I credit her for my presentation skills,” Martin said. “She has truly mastered the art of the presentation.”
So it only seemed natural that Szaraz got the idea for the VIP Committee from putting her ear to campus grounds.
“Over the last couple of years I began hearing a lot of anecdotal stuff on campus like, ‘Oh my club is working on this’ or ‘I know people who are doing that,’” she said. “But it was these sort of disparate patches of people doing their own thing for sexual violence awareness and outreach. Not everyone knew who was doing what thing.”
This all comes at a time when sexual assault reports are increasing not only at Stony Brook, but nationwide. But CPO Assistant Director and Doctor of Psychology Smita Majumdar Das said that in the short term, this is a positive sign.
“It’s good to see a rise in reported sexual assaults,” Majumdar Das said. “For eons victims have been silenced into shame all over the U.S.”
Professor Michael Kimmel of Stony Brook’s Department of Sociology also agreed. He said in an email the rate of reported sexual assaults in the U.S. was “about 5% for a long time,” but new estimates show a trend.
“Estimates now range from 7-12%,” Kimmel said. “It might appear the rate has gone up, but really the rate may have gone down and the reporting has gone up. In other words, this is good news.”
Szaraz said after being to over half a dozen training institutes sometimes sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, this trend is reiterated over and over again.
“Part of things becoming better is things becoming more visible and coming out of the dark,” she said.
So far, about nine different student organizations have agreed to combine efforts under the VIP tent and eventually see those numbers fall.
Nathan Blazon-Brown, a sophomore biochemistry major and H Quad resident assistant, mentioned that Szaraz has the students interested because she acts as a facilitator rather than an administrator.
“She wants to see no roadblocks in student work,” he said.
From a young age, Szaraz has been a supporter and coordinator of some sorts.
“I’ve always naturally fallen into those roles,” she said. “I’m the oldest of four, so for a long time I thought that kind of came with the territory.”
After graduating from Stony Brook with a degree in anthropology in 2003, Szaraz went onto work for a post-adoption program where she would model good behavior for adopted children struggling with new families.
“My supervisor at the time was like, ‘You got a knack for this, have you ever thought about this as a career?’”
She received her master’s in counseling and re-joined her alma mater full time as a CPO counselor in 2011.
As a counselor, she said it helps to be a “really weird blend of an introvert and an extrovert.”
Szaraz said she likes to be in an office setting, especially when it comes to program development. Her computer is bordered with sticky notes and a box of miscellaneous objects occupies each chair and couch in her office. Even the VIP meeting lounge has a mini library with a Guitar Hero box on top.
“But if I’m sitting 9 to 5 at my desk and not moving around and talking to people, that’s like a living hell for me.”
Though her informality is compatible with students, Szaraz said it is her biggest point of vulnerability as an employee.
“I’m now for the first time in my career getting a seat at what I call the grown-ups table,” she said. “I’ve been recognized for a number of years as somebody who can really connect with students. But the potential for weakness is being able to portray myself as both an ally to students and administrators.”
To her supervisor Majumdar Das, she is doing fine wearing both hats.
“Christine is absolutely wonderful,” Majumdar Das said. “She has a lot of energy and is very easy to talk to.”
Martin also had only nice things to say.
“She is an amazing human being,” Martin said. “She is a coordinator, counselor and presenter, and she does not get enough credit for what she does.”
With her work with the VIP just getting started, Szaraz already has an idea of what she wants the future to look like.
“It is a new thing, but I’d like to see things get broader,” she said. “I want to see discussions about sexual violence become an implicit part of everything else around us. I want, in whatever way I can, to give students a greater voice in what happens in campus policy and to give a connection with the people who make those policies and affect their lives.”