A Campus Victim Advocate’s Top 9 Tips for Helping Students Heal After Trauma

As a campus victim advocate and prevention specialist, people often tell me they could never do my job. 

But while helping students through devastating events can indeed be emotionally taxing, I’m relieved that students can access our services — including support through Title IX or criminal report procedures, safety planning, academic accommodations, counseling support, or even help with obtaining a restraining order. 

When I meet with a student, they often enter my office looking physically depleted and even scared.  But when I share with them what our office can do to help, I see a weight lifting off their shoulders. 

Supporting students in this way is so fulfilling to me. It satisfies a big part of why I pursued a career in student affairs. 

But advocating for students who’ve faced violence shouldn’t be left only to advocacy services or counseling centers. Here are my suggestions for how any student affairs professional can weave supporting victims of violence into their role. 

9 Tips

1. Understand the neurobiological impacts of trauma

Trauma changes the brain in ways that impact behavior. Sometimes, this behavior is confusing or misunderstood by people who could potentially help. 

Know that many people who’ve faced trauma from sexual violence or dating violence experience PTSD, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, flashbacks, suicide ideation, and other temporary or lasting effects

This kind of trauma puts people in survival mode, which might look strange to anyone who doesn’t understand the neurobiological effects of trauma. After experiencing trauma, someone might forget seemingly key details, laugh or fall asleep during inappropriate times, and be extremely irritable, among other things. 

Spend some time understanding why trauma makes people act the way they do so that you can implement changes and policies that will best serve students who’ve faced violence. I recommend listening to Dr. Rebecca Campbell’s presentation on the neurobiology of trauma and how it impacts the brain. 

2. Utilize campus resources

Campus victim advocates don’t want staff or faculty to feel like we’re the only ones who can reach students. We actually want the entire campus to be aware of our services. 

Find out what your institution has to offer. At mine, Marquette University, students have a few options for support from Advocacy Services. A victim advocate can help them obtain time away from classes, longer time to complete tests, extensions on homework due dates, or counseling support.

Or they can simply offer a kind, listening ear. Advocates can also support students through the procedures of Title IX investigation or a police report. 

It is also important for you to understand what services your Title IX office provides. You should know how to connect students to federally mandated support services. 

Title IX exists because students who face gender-based violence or discrimination should not have less access to education. In some cases, Title IX can remove offenders from campus or work to better educate individuals on the harm they’ve caused.  

For example, if a student makes sexually charged comments to another student, the Title IX coordinator can have a discussion with the perpetrator about why their behavior was inappropriate. At many campuses, this can happen even if the victim doesn’t want a full investigation. 

In cases of alleged violence that’s particularly extreme, alleged offenders can be removed from campus while the investigation is ongoing — in case they’re a threat to other students. 

You can also connect with your counseling center to see if any counselor is trained in providing services to victims of sexual violence or dating violence. If a student knows they have access to someone who has seen situations like theirs before, they may be more comfortable reaching out for support. 

If you have a campus police department or safety office, find out what services are available to victims there. For example, at Marquette, a victim services officer will drive students (along with a victim advocate) to the courthouse to get a restraining order or access another service. The police department also has a  program through which students can sign up to request a safety escort around campus. 

3. Create policies supportive of students who’ve faced trauma

If you employ students, you have the power to establish office policies that are supportive of anyone who has faced violence. For example, you can include instances related to trauma or violence as a valid excuse for work absences. I recommend allowing for up to a week of paid leave.

If you teach a course, you can include excused absences and other rules in your syllabus that are protective of students who might be facing trauma. If a student knows that they can drop their lowest test score and that their absences will be excused, they can take the break they may need, without needing to enlist the help of university officials, which many students might find intimidating.

If you work in student conduct or residence life, consider how you can make your policies easier for students who’ve faced trauma to navigateFor example, if a student is sexually assaulted while drinking, don’t hold them accountable for breaking the student code of conduct.

If a student is being stalked by a neighbor in their residence hall, it should be relatively easy for them to move to a new building if that would make them feel safer. If you work in housing, keep a few rooms open each semester so that students can request an emergency move if necessary. 

When your policies are created in trauma-informed ways, you can be ahead of the game in supporting students. 

4. Disclose your reporting status

Many students develop close mentorship relationships with faculty or student affairs professionals. So, students might disclose instances of violence or harassment to them without being aware of that professional’s obligation to report to Title IX. 

If you have a mandatory reporting status, make sure students know that. That way, they can choose what information they reveal to you. 

I’ve found it helpful to write and memorize an elevator speech about my reporting status. When I meet students coming to me for advocacy support, I tell them this speech right away.

Mine includes a brief overview of how I can help students and what I’m obligated to report to Title IX. I also tell students that they can choose to share with me as little or as much information as they like. Finally, I ask the student if they have any questions about my reporting obligation. I do all this before we talk about what else they need from me.  

I’ve also found it helpful to educate students on what will happen once Title IX is made aware of the situation. At Marquette, a campus advocate will send out a gentle outreach email to the student or community member impacted with the options and resources are available on campus for them. In most cases, Title IX will not start an investigation unless the student requests one.

5. Listen

One principle of victim advocacy is to do more listening than talking. 

Listening to a survivor of violence, without judgment, is one of the most healing things you can do for them. Don’t ask for more details, don’t investigate, and don’t offer advice. Just listen. 

You can lean on supportive statements or questions like:

  •  “I’m so sorry to hear that this happened to you.” 
  • “This is not your fault.” 
  • “I believe you.” 
  • “How can I help?”

When you listen intently, you give someone who has faced violence a safe space to start healing. 

6. Connect with your campus advocates or counselors

Campus victim advocates, whether they’re employed by the institution or work as contracts, have years of experience in supporting students who’ve faced violence. Meeting them will give you a chance to learn how they can help students on your particular campus. 

If your campus doesn’t have campus victim advocates, students might turn to counseling centers for support. If this is the case, connect with your counseling center to find out what students who’ve faced violence may need or can access there. 

If your campus doesn’t have victim advocates nor counselors, it would be beneficial to create those services. If you’re an upper-level administrator, convene a task force about this. If you are mid- or entry-level, consider reaching out to community agencies to form a partnership.

Given that rates of violence are so high, it’s important to have victim support services on campus.

7. Set Boundaries

Secondary trauma is real and its effects can lead to burnout for student affairs professionals who work with students in crisis. To be an effective advocate, you need to maintain healthy boundaries

If you are a hall director or academic advisor, you can set boundaries by referring students who’ve faced trauma to professionals on campus that are specifically trained to support them.  I think heading with the student to the advocate’s office is a great way to handle this handoff tactfully, without the student feeling abandoned. 

Although you may be available to listen, make sure you set boundaries so that you can support all student needs.

If you meet with a student who has had a particularly traumatic experience, give yourself some time before transitioning to other tasks. 

For example, I keep knitting in my desk so that if I talk with a student about an especially grim event, I can knit a few rows after to clear my mind. If I meet with a student at the end of the day, I listen to upbeat music or a compelling podcast on my way home. A

Another way to put the workday behind you could be to stop at a grocery store on your way home and cook a good meal.

On its face, boundary-setting might sound like you are giving less of yourself to students who need help. But that’s not the case. It gives you more space to do the emotional labor of supporting students who’ve been victimized. 

Setting boundaries allows you to continue to do the work of advocating for students.

8. Maintain privacy

Students who’ve faced sexual or dating violence often feel embarrassed and ashamed about the event, even though it’s not their fault. However, because of these feelings, it’s extremely important to maintain the privacy of students who’ve shared information with you. 

Students the right to determine who hears their story. Outside of your mandatory reporting status (which is meant to connect students to supportive resources), you must keep the information private. 

If you need help in supporting the student further, it might be helpful to discuss options with a campus advocate or Title IX coordinator. If you’ve already met your reporting obligation, the Title IX coordinator could be helpful in offering more support. Or, you could discuss the situation, using anonymous non-identifiable details, with a campus victim advocate 

Doing this will help you build trust with students. If they share with their friends that you are trustworthy, you may be able to reach even more students. 

9. Consider your space

Bright lights and loud noises can spook anyone but especially people who’ve faced trauma related to violence. 

Fluorescent lights are particularly harsh. If you have your own office, consider using lamps instead to create a calmer vibe. 

Loud noises can also be triggering, so think about using a sound machine or playing a soothing sounds playlist from your computer to block out traffic, machinery, or voices. 

I also keep some tins of soft putty, Koosh balls, and other toys for students to play with if they’d like to keep their hands busy. It can also be helpful to hang up cute or calming images to make your space more welcoming and comfy. I keep some throw blankets on the backs of my chairs which adds to my office’s homey feel.

When everyone on campus works to make their realms a bit more welcoming for students who’ve faced violence, we can shift to a more inclusive culture of care. Students shouldn’t have to leave college to deal with the effects violence has had on their lives. With these suggestions, we can make it easier for them to navigate life after violence.  

How have you advocated for students who’ve faced violence? What questions do you still have? Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.

Kacie Otto

About the author: Kacie Otto is the Violence Prevention Specialist at Marquette University. If she’s not knitting or reading a book about feminism, you might find her at a campsite or in a thrift shop. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

Check I'm Here is now Presence. Learn more about this change in our blog post here.