This story is part of the "Real Women, Real Stories," series called a social project designed to promote awareness of the often unseen hardships women face in different professions and places around the world.You can contribute to the project here.
I stepped out of the hidden subway underground into the pink light of Columbia University, dawn at my dream school. Power blue and white balloons welcomed incoming students, brightening the high black metal gates. I feared my 18-year-old classmates would immediately see I was different and didn’t belong. At 26, I was a transfer student, returning to school for orientation. I hoped it wasn’t obvious how awkward I felt, that I was older than everyone.
I was afraid to try higher education again, with good reason. Seven years before, I’d dropped out of Colorado College after I was raped by a fellow freshman.
At 18, arriving at my dorm for the first time, I’d been so excited to be free, 2,000 miles from home. I knew nobody, beginning entirely fresh, excited to live in the world of ideas, without my parents’ archaic rules.
Within a blissed hour, I’d made a new friend — the freckled-porcelain-skinned Katherine. After orientation activities, she slipped into my room. She was followed by a skinny boy with black hair and wooden drumsticks in the back pocket of his jeans who also happened to be my neighbor and a thicker redheaded boy.
I felt popular, hosting a little party in my new room. Someone took out a DVD of "The Breakfast Club," and we lit a joint and watched the classic in my bed. After the movie ended, the freckled girl left with my neighbor. I was wearing pink linen shorts, too high-waisted to be cool. Still, I felt pretty. When the boy who remained in the room turned to me, I’d smiled at his red hair. I happily kissed him. He seemed easygoing, poised. But then he gripped my thigh. My voice wavered as I said “bye.” Suddenly frightened, I didn’t want him to stay, but he became deaf. The slice of sky in my cracked window glowed black, dense as a bomb.
Waking alone six hours later, two stains of blood marked my white cotton underwear. The bright sky defied the violence of the past night. Two dim weeks passed before I mustered the strength to cross a lawn to the office of the college’s sexual assault counselor. She offered me a blue lollipop and said, “Sit, hon.” Together we decided to officially pursue the matter at the school administration instead of with police.
We entered mediation, an internal hearing at the Student Center. No lawyer, no friends, or parents were present. My assailant and I testified separately, never together. In a beige conference room, I was questioned by two polite college-appointed mediators, submitting my memory. As if rape could be mediated like a playground fight. And in this lawless trial, I confessed the boy and I had smoked weed that awful night.
“Marijuana is a hallucinogen,” an administrator told me then, very quick. Her sharp implication stung me: that I’d hallucinated a rape.
The mediator asked me if I would like to see my rapist’s testimony. The sexual assault counselor placed it in front of me: a single sheet of computer paper. It simply said that he and I had not had sex. I probably wanted to, the boy wrote, but he’d felt nothing.
The mediator said that by her judgment of the events of that night, what exactly had happened was “inconclusive.” The college found my rapist innocent. Therefore, I was guilty of lying.
The administration soon moved the boy from his room across campus into my dormitory, the floor above me. When I called Campus Housing and asked to be farther away from him, they moved me into the stained cinderblock motel dorm beyond the edge of campus, in the shadowed lot behind the Conoco gas station. My dim room had a sewage leak. I felt exiled and traumatized.
The only comfort I found was in planning to disappear.
With four weeks left of my freshman year, I dropped out — and flew west. I walked alone into the Sonoran Desert mountains, 300 miles south of California’s Mojave desert. I had discovered the Pacific Crest Trail, a footpath through the vast American West — from Mexico, all the way to Canada. After 2,650 miles of hiking, five months of living on my own in the wilderness, that pilgrimage was finished. Afterwards I wanted to go back to being a student again.
I applied to transfer to Columbia University. In spring, the letter-size envelope was thin in my clammy hands. They didn’t let me in. For four months I drove to trailheads along the West coast, in Marin County, and took long walks that felt like pacing. A dropout, I felt like a failure. Everyone in my family had college or graduate degrees — my mom and dad had both graduated law school, and my two older brothers were earning advanced degrees. I loved learning. But I felt I’d ruined my chance. A year passed, and I filled out applications for several schools, including Columbia. I was hopeful. Yet I was not admitted, again.
Over the next several years, I tried on different university programs, relationships, careers, and jobs. None fit. Scrawling in cluttered cafés into the nights, I collected a small tribe of friends: young artists who had crossed their own forests, as I had, to New York City. I published articles — and even a book about my assault — and became a spokesperson for the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. Yet I still felt a little inadequate without a degree, as if I’d missed something fundamental. I feared I wasn’t as smart and academic as my parents and brothers.
I still longed to study at Columbia. Then I discovered the school had a special program for people who had accomplishments outside of the classroom. Maybe my work against sexual assault at the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network could count. My friend Sara-Kate encouraged me to apply again. I told her I was unsure. I had tried before, twice.
She was encouraging, reawakening the fantasy. We filled out the application together, a special form that isn't part of the “Common App.”
This time Columbia admitted me.
Yet now, as a 26-year-old college sophomore, I planned to avoid the impressive, accomplished 18-year-olds who’d detect how many chaotic years had passed since I’d last been in a university program. Amid the hoards of freshmen, the deja vu was overwhelming. I dreaded the conversation I imagined I’d have, explaining what I was doing at Columbia, older than everybody.
At the pizza party meet-and-greet at orientation, I met the others in my program. It turned out there were many returning students. In fact, the median age in the General Studies Program was 28. I was younger than average! That day I learned something else astonishing, and comforting — that, according to the 2016 Hechinger Report, only about 36% of college kids finished their degree in four years. Forty percent took six years or longer. And at non-flagship four-year public universities, the on-time graduation rate was even lower, just 19%. So — in reality, I was in the American majority.
A girl who had freckles asked me what I wanted to study, and I told her, “Theoretical physics and poetry.” We wore our eyeliner in a similar modern style, winged. I asked her back, “Do you know yet?”
“Psychology and neuroscience,” she told me. “And also photography.”
It turned out, she had lived nearby my hometown for a year. We discovered that we’d both been ice-skating on Friday nights at the same rink in Massachusetts, where I grew up.
“I’ve probably seen you,” I said. “I loved skating there.”
I realized that no one cared about my years away, only that I was here. Later, at the Columbia University bookstore, I shopped for a cute school sweater, proud to be a part of the school community. The freckled girl found my book in the university's bookstore. That my new classmate showed it to me felt sweet and supportive, validating my past as if welcoming me back.
On the second day of my student orientation, I went through Sexual Assault Response education. Through a skit, our peer leaders played out the story of a man pressuring his date to drink, slipping shots into reluctant hands — with an agenda. Then there was an interactive test, which we took with our cell phones, our scores reported. Sharing statistics — including stats regarding rapes at Columbia; they didn’t shy away. I was impressed and personally touched. If Colorado College had a course like this my second day there, maybe I wouldn’t have been assaulted and would have been in graduate school by now.
Still, seven years late, I felt safer at college, thankful I’d been givenanother chance.
Editor's Note: Global Citizen reached out to Colorado College to allow it to respond to this essay. The college sent us this response:
"Colorado College has always strived to support survivors through trauma-informed processes that include confidential resources. We engage in consistent review and evaluation of our policy and procedures which are in line with the recommendations of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, to include not only response but also prevention. We admire Aspen’s tenacity in pursuing a college degree and her continued work in prevention and in supporting survivors."