Grinnell Takes Student Well-Being to the Next Level

Students engage deeply with active bystanderism on campus
Elise Hadden ’14

In the midst of the national outcry about student safety on college campuses, concern about alcohol, drugs, and sexual assault is central to many conversations surrounding student well-being. While it’s clear that students on every campus are facing these issues, it can be difficult, from the outside, to see what steps are being taken to increase student safety. What is Grinnell doing to address these problems? One of the most promising answers, according to Jen Jacobsen ’95, wellness director, lies in the College’s active bystander training.

“Active bystanderism is an opportunity to empower people to interrupt a situation that looks like it might be harmful, to find out if they can change the direction of that situation,” says Jacobsen.

This intervention can be as simple as offering to walk someone home from a party if they seem like they’ve had too much to drink. But direct intervention isn’t the only thing active bystander training encourages. Students learn about campus resources they can turn to in case they feel uncomfortable addressing a situation themselves. For example, a student with a roommate who hasn’t been to class all week may not know how to start a conversation directly but can alert the on-call residence life coordinator (RLC). 

The most compelling and unique part of Grinnell’s active bystander program is the intense amount of student involvement. Training sessions are often run by student mentors, and the students receiving the training have input into what scenarios they learn about. 

Students talk in groups about situations they’ve encountered where they wished they’d known how to help — for instance, how to talk to a friend who’s obsessing over a final paper about taking it easy and making time for wellness. Another common concern is how to act when seeing someone who is drunk leaving a party to “hook up” if it seems like he or she might not be safe or able to give consent. Understanding that students are dealing with these kinds of situations and are unsure of how to navigate them helps Jacobsen tap into what really matters to students.

“The greatest learning comes from that discussion where the students talk among themselves about what scenarios they’ve encountered, what they have seen, what they think someone should do,” Jacobsen says. “It also gives me a good pulse on what’s actually relevant and happening on campus.”

Grinnell students are eager to learn how they can be active bystanders in their community, likely due to the self-governance ethic of campus culture. When asked whether they would like information on how to help others in distress on campus, 83 percent of Grinnell students responded that they would, compared to only 56 percent of the national undergraduate population. Furthermore, 96.7 percent of Grinnell students see active bystanderism as important to the success of self-governance.

Colton Silvia ’17 has been so involved in active bystander training on campus that he presented alongside Jacobsen at the Heartland Safety Summit last November. His knowledge and confidence impressed many of the student affairs and violence prevention professionals from other schools who attended the conference, and Silvia walked away with some important takeaways as well.

“The thing that really struck me was the importance of being intentional about how you reach certain communities, because it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing,” Silvia says. “The experience spurred me to keep pushing to revive the group Real Men, because men teaching men about gender-based violence has proved to be really effective.” 

Student organizations like Real Men target specific groups on campus to provide them with training and role models that will most effectively teach and inspire them to participate in harm reduction on campus. Jacobsen, who is also assistant track and field coach, has developed training sessions that provide targeted examples to athletic teams, who have been campus leaders in engaging in active bystander workshops, faculty, and other groups on campus to make sure that the training has the biggest possible impact. 

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