October 19, 2017
My heart has been broken by the painful stories of sexual harassment and abuse shared by so many precious women this week as I have followed the #MeToo hashtag on social media. It is easy for me to trivialize my experience as I read about the sexual harassment and abuse so many women have experienced. But of all the stories I’ve read, very few have touched on abuse within academia, which happens every single day, and I want other women who are walking through this to know they are not alone. This is my #MeToo story.
I was taking one of my highly competitive, mandatory prerequisite community college classes for nursing school. All of the graded material for this particular class was papers. Lots and lots of writing, all on very subjective topics.
After submitting one of my first papers, the professor decided to pull us all aside individually during the class period to return our graded papers. When it was my turn, he invited me to take a seat with him outside. Staring directly at my breasts, he said, “I’ve noticed you like to wear shirts that zip down in the front. I really like that.”
In shock, I just glanced down at my sweater and flusteredly said something dismissive like, “uh… oh… really? I do?”
He then handed me my paper — with a giant D across the front. I had never gotten a D on anything in my entire academic career. In years of writing classes, I had never received anything lower than an A minus on individual papers. My GPA up until that day had always been a 4.0 or higher.
I sat there, outside, alone with my professor, trying to mentally process a man old enough to be my father being interested in staring at the zippers on my shirt while academically failing me at the same time. He knew full well at the time that this class could make or break my academic nursing career.
What he might not have realized is, I was 14 years old at the time this happened.
Naturally, I wanted to drop the class immediately, but he was the only professor teaching this specific class for months. Dropping out would have meant delaying my nursing school program entrance at the university I wanted to attend possibly by years. Continuing in the community college class meant risking the injustice of an undeserved low grade, which could also end up delaying my nursing school entrance by years.
Nursing programs across the country are so highly competitive that often the difference of an A versus a B decides whether or not you make the cut. I was worried that my reporting of this sexual harassment, from a professor who had been the chairperson of his department at this community college for years, would have immediately been swept aside as a he-said-she-said argument. In my mind, this would have definitely sealed the deal on delaying my career. Worse than that, I was the first underage student this community college had ever accepted. I was trailblazing a path so people could get accepted into colleges based on their academic ability, not the date on their birth certificate. To this day, I believe the act of reporting this harassment would have led to my likely expulsion. In my mind, why would a community college want to risk a sexual harassment case with a minor, no matter how innocent, gifted, and driven the student might be?
So, having no foreseeably positive outcome, I did the only thing I could think of, and I emailed him to ask (as politely as I possibly could) for an extra credit assignment “to make up for the mistakes” in my first paper.
He responded and told me I could meet him in his office, again privately, to discuss this possibility.
I remember vividly the day I walked into his office for this private meeting. I picked the chair closest to the door in an effort to prevent him from closing it. We chatted for about 5 minutes about a new writing assignment he would consider giving me a little extra credit for. I took studious notes and put on my best thankful face, because honestly in that moment, I was. I was thankful. Maybe I could still make it to nursing school? Maybe this wouldn’t stonewall me after all? I asked him how I could improve from the first assignment. Not being able to give me a single specific answer, he just said that he knew I could do better.
Five minutes into the meeting, he changed the conversation completely and started telling me how I perfect I would be for the summer abroad trip he would soon be leading in Belize. He then made me look at all the pictures of where I could stay with him and told me about all the amazing adventures we could have together in Belize. He wanted me to come. Becoming increasingly unnerved, I told him how exciting that looked and how I would think about it so I could quickly end the meeting.
I essentially groveled the rest of the semester. I dreaded going to his class. The lingering stares and unnerving comments continued. I smiled and did my best to mentally suppress my feelings and justify what was happened. I was very careful picking out my clothes, hoping to pass through his class without further unwanted notice. A few months passed, and then, supposedly thanks to the extra credit, I passed the class with the A I so badly needed.
Months later, I was taking a biology class at community college with another pre-nursing friend of mine. It was now her turn to take the horrible class I barely survived the semester before. One day, she came up to me excitedly and told me, “The professor showed your paper in front of the whole class today! I saw your name on it!”
Assuming immediately that he used my paper as the example of what NOT to do, I made a flippant remark indicating so. She corrected me and said, “No, he wanted us all to model your paper. He told us all that what you wrote was excellent.” Filled with disbelief, I asked her the same questions over and over. Was that really my paper? Was it really the first paper I wrote and not a different one? What was the topic? Did you actually see my name on the paper? How could this be? Certainly, there must be a mistake.
But it was true. The paper he gave me a D on, the paper that was followed by lewd and inappropriate comments, uncomfortable private meetings, and months of groveling as to not lose my nursing career before it had even begun, had now become the showcase example of academic excellence for his next class.
Possibly the worst part of this story? This community college class was a mandatory ethics class. This man who had grossly abused his authority as a teacher was responsible for teaching me ethics. It’s sickening.
I don’t see myself as a victim, but it’s important to note that even though I made a choice to stay in that class, he did not have the right to use his position of power as a professor to harass me. Today, I am sharing my story, not to gain sympathy, but to add my voice to the collective call of awareness that sexual harassment and abuse must end and to shine a light on the abuse that exists in academia.
As a society, we must be careful not to brush aside micro offenses of harassment. If I had a dime for every time I have received sexualized comments for choosing the profession of nursing by doctors, patients, people, and the media at large, I would be far too rich. Those stories, and stories of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, are echoed by every nurse I know. Some statistics show as many as 50% of female nurses, physicians, and students have reported experiencing sexual harassment. And yet, we’ve regularly and repeatedly been told to brush it off and learn how to take a joke.
I was a powerless student in a situation where a man abused his authority in a harassing way. I am legitimately thankful the abuse didn’t escalate further, as it so easily could have, and has for so many women.
As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I encourage parents to have age-appropriate conversations with their children about sex, safety, abuse, and consent. Start these conversations with your children as soon as possible and continue having them as they grow older. They are vitally important.
Today, I am not powerless, and I want to encourage you, if you are in a position where someone who has power over you is sexually harassing you, please speak out. Know that it isn’t your fault, whether it’s happened one time, or repeatedly. And please take care of yourself. If you need to speak to someone safe, you can call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE.
Author: Dani Stringer, MSN, CPNP, PMHS – founder of KidNurse and MomNurse Academy