Q&A: SAPA Director Megan Varner discusses resources program offers, importance of Title IX & how it impacts CMU
EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Megan Varner, the director of Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates (SAPA) at CMU Central Michigan University, has served in her current role since co-founder Brooke Oliver-Hempenstall left in early January of this year. She has been involved with SAPA since 2007. Prior to this, she served as the sexual aggression dedicated counselor and assistant director of SAPA beginning in 2015.
Varner earned both her Bachelor of Science in family studies and Master of Arts in professional counseling degrees from CMU. She was a peer advocate herself before becoming a graduate assistant with the program.
SAPA is a peer advocacy group and was established in 1996. It began with only 10 advocates and five contacts per school year before growing to around 50 advocates and over 300 contacts, according to the SAPA website.
Central Michigan Life sat down with Varner recently as part of its coverage commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.
CM Life: What resources does SAPA offer to students?
Varner: So we offer...our (Crisis/Support Line), and then our (SAPA Chat Text), and those run 24/7. During the academic year, when classes are in session, we are operating. And then through those services, you can request to meet in person with people.
SAPAs can help bridge to other resources. They may be able to help fill out a personal protection order, or accompany folks to the hospital or to the OCRIE (Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity) office, or to police to file a report just to kind of be that additional support person and to advocate on behalf of the person that they're working with. So they're really there to support a survivor or someone who has been impacted however they need.
How have you worked to improve the advocacy services provided by SAPA, as well as in the community, to help foster better connections and unified survivor-centered approaches?
Going back to that text line I mentioned, you know, we recognize the need that not all students or individuals impacted are going to be comfortable making a phone call and and talking or meeting in person. We want to be as available and as accessible as we can, no matter who you are and how you want to communicate with us. So I think that's an example of how we are constantly thinking of how we can reroute and shift our services to meet the needs of the current climate and the folks that are there and to constantly better our services.
In regards to the community, I think we are always looking for ways to connect. I know our office has been part of sexual assault response teams and community ventures to get folks together to discuss – how can we better approach as a community these issues? We work as closely as we can with OCRIE and R.I.S.E Advocacy. We partner with them as often as we can for awareness months. And I think really, the answer is anytime we can partner with somebody so that we can strengthen our message to the community, and so that we can reach more folks, we are open and willing to do that because it only betters us to have that reach to the community from other places.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. What message do you want to send the CMU and Mount Pleasant communities during this time?
I think for me, one of the most important part of any awareness month is just that folks can gain a better understanding that this is something that impacts a lot of us, a lot of people in this world. There's really no discrimination based on a person's gender, or class, or really any identifying factor. Domestic violence kind of is across the board. I think even more importantly, what I love about awareness months is...an opportunity for folks to band together and show their support and to show that they are there for people who have been directly impacted by domestic violence.
What has the progression been from 20 to 30 years ago when these issues weren't at the forefront? How has that impacted CMU where we are today?
This is about my 15th year, so in my time...CMU has really embraced those who have been impacted in such a great way. (Title IX has) always been a part of our Student Code of Conduct since I've been here. So even if there are changes to Title IX and the processes of how we approach investigations and reports and things like that, CMU has always made a clear statement that sexual assault and domestic violence on our campus is not acceptable and I will give CMU a lot of credit for that. I don't know that that's something that's always been echoed across universities across the country, so at least for those of us that have participated in SAPA, and in this work, it's always been a really nice point of pride in working at CMU. They really have embraced it in that way and not try to hide it. I think they've done a really good job in recognizing that it is something that impacts a lot of their students and community.
What does Title IX mean to you as the director of SAPA and as a woman?
As a human being, I think Title IX really stretches beyond even just our world. I mean, if you look at the gender-based discrimination and the things it's done for women's athletics, and then even all the way to my world and the world of sexual violence and sexual harassment, it's just really paved the way for a lot of forward movement. That's an impressive thing.
It doesn't happen a lot in our society for something to stick around for this long and to make such a huge impact and a ripple effect on all of those locations in all of those areas. From athletics to sexual aggression services, I mean, it's amazing to me that this one seemingly small Title IX component has really impacted a community on this larger scale. So I think that's really what it means to me – it's just opened doors, paved the way for conversations and made such a large impact on the lives of so many.
For events to get involved with SAPA, visit SAPA's event and newsletter webpage.