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Thursday, February 29, 2024
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‘A community can change everything’: Founders of It’s On Us UB discuss sexual assault awareness and community

The club aims to educate and engage students of all genders and backgrounds

Nicole Culmone (left) and Saumya Gilra (right) from It’s On Us UB.
Nicole Culmone (left) and Saumya Gilra (right) from It’s On Us UB.

Music plays quietly in the background as members of It’s On Us club file into their weekly meeting. Students talk among themselves as they grab a slice of pizza and claim their seats at the circle of chairs in the center of the room.

With meetings every Tuesday from 7-8 p.m., UB’s It’s On Us chapter is one of 275 college chapters under the parent organization. 

Launched in 2014 through the Obama administration’s White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, the organization aims to “build the movement to combat campus sexual assault by engaging all students, including young men, and activating the largest student organizing program of its kind in grassroots awareness and prevention education programs,” according to its website.

It’s On Us’ mission struck a chord with senior law and political science major Saumya Gilra, who decided to found a chapter at UB.

After co-organizing the Buffalo Women’s March last year, Gilra was inspired to create “something more permanent” at the university.

“That’s when I was like ‘I want to do something at UB,’” she said.

Gilra and her friend, senior psychology major and It’s On Us UB president Nicole Culmone, believe the name of the club would comfort potential members who may feel “uneasy” about a club name that directly mentions sexual assault.

The club sees a “good mix” of genders and identities, something that the parent organization emphasizes.

“I think young men are often overlooked as not being [part of the demographic that is] sexually assaulted,” Culmone said. “They’re like ‘This is only a woman’s fight,’ but it’s really not… it’s everyone’s fight.”

At the club’s recent “Tough Topics” meeting, members shared their perspectives on a wide range of topics, encompassing everything from safe sex to actions UB could take to better support its students.

“I think that we as a society need to [have a] further discussion… especially here on campus because there’s such a severe underreporting of cases that do occur because of the stigma that does exist,” first-year graduate communication student Natalie Barcia-Varno said, noting the “hoops” survivors have to “jump through” to report assault and stay safe at UB

More than two out of three sexual assault cases go unreported, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“That’s one of the main reasons why we did this — because the school will always have conflicting interests [in taking action on reports of sexual assault],” Gilra said. “We wanted students to support other students, we wanted [them to] feel the love of the community while on campus… the school environment is not always what’s best for the survivor. The survivor may not even want the school involved in the first place.”

All academic faculty members — including those in academic advisement, career services, continuing education, financial aid, instructional support, athletics, residential life or student activities/affairs — who have knowledge of a student who has experienced sexual assault are mandated to make a report to the Equity, Diversty and Inclusion (EDI) Office, according to its website.

The club ran into trouble with the university when they attempted to host a self-defense workshop through UPD. They were told that class attendance was limited to only women, something Culmone describes as “absolutely absurd.”

“First of all, there’s not only two genders, so how does that come into the equation?” Gilra said. “What about people who are trans or questioning, what happens there? Are we going biologically based on what was assigned at birth?”

21% of transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming (TGQN) college students have been sexually assaulted, and one out of every 10 rape victims are male, according to RAINN.

Culmone contacted UPD again to ask if the policy could be waived, but was instead given the offer of a “self-defense discussion” without the hands-on training.

“I’m not going to tell men they can’t show up,” Culmone said. “Am I supposed to tell my treasurer, someone on the e-board, that he can’t [come]?”

Beyond open discussions and workshops, It’s On Us UB aims to foster community and educate students with events ranging from health trivia to their self-care night collaboration with UB Women’s and Wellness Association, which Gilra described as “amazing.”

“I didn’t even know how much it would affect me,” Gilra said. “But I was smiling, and everyone was too. We had coloring, we had [therapy] dogs, and people were just relaxing.”

Although the pair are graduating soon, they hope the next generation of e-board members keeps It’s On Us UB going for the students who need it.

“I feel like a community can change everything,” Gilra said. “People were afraid to come out and share their story… and a supportive community can bring that all out of you. I saw it with myself. I saw it with my friends. I saw it with random people that I’ve never met before. That’s what I was trying to do here.”

Jasmin Yeung is the senior features editor and can be reached at jasmin.yeung@ubspectrum.com

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