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Group combating sexual violence expands reach under new leadership at SMC

| Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Saint Mary’s welcomed Liz Coulston as the new Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) coordinator in May, and since then she has been busy establishing herself on campus as a new source of leadership and a reliable resource.

“I think it’s important for students to know that I’m here now because the position has been empty for a year and a half, so a lot of people that are new on campus never knew that this position existed,” Coulston said. “So it’s important that people know that I’m here.”

Originally from Niles, Michigan, Coulston said she was very familiar with Saint Mary’s and the surrounding community as she was growing up, and said she could see the Golden Dome from her parents’ house.

“I love Saint Mary’s,” she said. “I grew up going to their summer camps for fine arts and for sports, so I’ve been familiar with the school for a long time.”

Coulston studied psychology at Ohio Northern University where she minored in arts administration, entrepreneurship and dance. After graduating, Coulston moved to South Bend and worked at AIDS ministries as a care coordinator for individuals with HIV and AIDS diagnoses.

After dancing professionally for two years in Chicago, Coulston found work at the Logan Autism Center in Benton Harbor, Michigan, before earning her masters in social work from Grand Valley State University. Through this graduate program, Coulston completed a year-long internship in crisis advocacy at the YWCA, a resource for individuals who have experienced domestic or sexual violence.

When she started job hunting after graduating with her master’s degree in April of this year, Coulston said she wasn’t even aware of BAVO’s existence but was excited to discover Saint Mary’s offered such a resource to its students. She is passionate about assisting with college-aged students, an age group she has enjoyed working with in all of her areas of experience.

“I just think it’s such a unique experience, and it’s a unique place for people to be in their lives,” she said. “You are suddenly thrust into this total independence at 18 and are expected to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. … I think college kids are people that need a lot of support but don’t get a lot of support a lot of the time.”

Though under new leadership, Coulston said BAVO will continue to provide many of the same services offered in previous years.

“We continue to do education and outreach throughout campus and throughout the community,” she said. “I’ll still have my student advisory committee, as well as allies underneath them, so we will keep the student-led groups doing events and things like that on campus.”

The office will provide advocacy services such as legal and medical aid, as well as counseling and other resources. In her position, Coulston will also act as a confidential reporter.

“I don’t have to disclose anything that anyone tells me to the university or to law enforcement, outside of child abuse and neglect,” she said. “That’s a really great resource to have on campus. … People can come and talk to me if they just want to talk something out that has happened to them or a friend.”

This year, BAVO will be working in coordination with the President’s Committee on Sexual Violence, a group of administrators and faculty members that have a special interest in addressing sexual violence on Saint Mary’s campus. The groups will host educational programming and events, Colston said.

“I think the big thing we’re trying to show is that Saint Mary’s does take these issues seriously and that it’s not just one person in one office that cares,” she said.

Coulston said the addition of three student representatives to the committee will include an essential student perspective.

“I mean we can plan all we want, but if students aren’t actually interested in the information, they’re not going to come,” she said. “So it’s really important to have those students giving input on events and programming, not only in what students are interested in but what students want and what students need.”

BAVO will continue to use the same first year orientation programming as used in years past, working in conjunction with the campus safety department and health and counseling center to educate incoming students on the available services, Coulston said. She encourages all first years, even those not seeking resources specific to BAVO, to stop by her office.

“I feel like there’s such a stigma that people think that they need to have this super traumatic experience to come visit me, and that’s totally not true,” Coulston said. “I mean, you can come to me even just if you want someone that you can talk to that isn’t going to have to tell the school … so I totally encourage students and parents to come talk to me.”

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