“I think a common experience for grad students, particularly at major research institutions, is the single-minded focus on producing excellent research. It’s so easy to get tunnel vision and lose track of what you are excited or passionate about. And, it’s easy to get caught up in a pattern of obsessing about whether you’re smart enough or ‘good’ enough.” Kaye Usry, PhD candidate in Political Science, said. “I was feeling a lot of pressure to meet these expectations that, when it came down to it, I was really setting for myself. It wasn't healthy or good for me.” It was at that point that Kaye started exploring ways to engage with the community and issues that were important to her, outside of her research.
For Kaye, that meant women’s issues, which led her to Rape Advocacy, Counseling, and Education Services (RACES) in the community, and the Women’s Resources Center on campus. “I came to the University of Illinois straight out of undergrad, and honestly, I didn't really know what I was interested in at that stage in my life” she said. “After a couple of years as a graduate student, I felt disconnected from reality, and from life outside of school. I felt like the only people I knew were in my department, and I wanted to break out of that. I knew I identified as feminist, so, I just sort of ran with that. Fortunately, there happens to be a vibrant community of people here that are passionate and incredibly knowledgeable about gender and social justice. In the process of getting involved with these organizations, I've learned so much.”
After reaching out to the Women’s Resources Center, Kaye became involved with their efforts to improve the university’s mandatory rape education program, FYCARE, for all first-year undergraduates on campus. Although the program had been going strong for nearly twenty years, very little was known about its effects. Kaye knew that she could help. “The methods training I received in my graduate program turned out to be pretty useful for designing surveys to evaluate what was working with FYCARE, and what wasn’t.”
Prior to her involvement, the Women’s Resources Center introduced the option of FYCARE workshops with gender neutral discussion groups. “For a while, discussion groups were always broken down into men’s and women’s only groups. Women were primarily taught about how they could reduce their risk of being assaulted, and men were taught bystander intervention skills. As you might imagine, it was an uncomfortable moment,” said Kaye of the experience for some students. “Queer and trans students who did not feel they belonged in either type of group were faced with a difficult choice.”
In 2013, when Kaye first became involved with the WRC, the FYCARE curriculum had been updated so that all students were provided with the same information, regardless of their gender identity. And when registering, students were offered a choice of workshop type: those with men’s and women’s only discussion groups, and those that break into small groups without regards to gender identity. “In the violence prevention education literature, there are some concerns that gender neutral workshops like these are less effective, particularly when it comes to educating men about sexual assault,” explained Kaye. “So, my role in creating the surveys was to help evaluate whether anything is lost when offering the gender neutral breakout groups.”
Since then, Kaye has conducted two rounds of pre- and post-workshop surveys, for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years. “We’ve been able to empirically document that providing gender neutral discussion groups significantly improve workshop experiences for persons who are LGBTQ+ identified, and that these groups do not result in a meaningful loss in workshop effectiveness. In fact, in some cases, we find that men’s only discussion groups lead to attitude change in the opposite direction of what one would hope.”
In the coming year, Kaye hopes to publish these findings and is collaborating on a manuscript with Molly McLay, the Assistant Director of the Women’s Resources Center, and Alex Nelson, a recent MSW graduate from the University of Illinois, who were both integrally involved in updating the FYCARE curriculum to be more inclusive. Due in part to the results of these surveys, the Women’s Resources Center will continue to offer gender neutral workshops. “This is an important step forward in terms of making sure all first year students learn about how to support survivors, and feel safe and welcome in their workshop, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. By publishing our findings, we hope other campus sexual assault prevention programs will follow a similar model,” Kaye said.
Kaye began her PhD program with interests in political communication and political psychology. Early in her graduate career, she was planning to pursue a dissertation project about popular culture’s portrayal of government and politics, but her experiences outside the department dramatically changed the direction of her research. “I came across a handful of different studies showing an association between major, traumatic life events and an increase in political activism and engagement. It’s tempting to spin these findings as a sort of silver lining to trauma, and some researchers do just that. But, based on everything I’ve learned about sexual violence, as a result of my involvement with RACES and WRC, that really rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t buy this line of reasoning—that on average, we can expect people to respond to trauma by seeking political change.” Kaye said. “As a result, my dissertation is about developing our understanding of the conditions under which we might expect trauma to be associated with a change in political beliefs or behaviors.”
What’s one piece of advice she wishes someone had given to her when she was facing burnout and feeling disconnected from the community?
“In grad school, it may not seem like it, but it's okay to pursue something else that you are interested in, outside of your area of study, especially if you are feeling stuck or isolated. Listen to yourself. Take a break from what you are always thinking about. It might help you feel more creative about your own research, or lead you down a different path,” she said. “It’s okay to step outside whatever ideas you have about what graduate school should be.”
Kaye is one of five Special Recognition Award Winners in this year’s Graduate Student Leadership Award competition. This award is sponsored by The Graduate College and its student advisory group, SAGE (Students Advising on Graduate Education). It was created to recognize graduate students who have exhibited outstanding service that has positively impacted the campus or wider Urbana-Champaign community. You can read more about the award on our website.
Caitlin Edwards is the Communications Specialist at the Graduate College. She's currently pursuing a Master's of Science degree in Tourism Management at the university. Her research focuses on sustainable community development through tourism and in her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome husband and their pug, Torbin.