Q&A: Sexual assault dedicated counselor Aileen Guerra-Morales
EDITORS NOTE: This article has been edited for length and clarity.
Aileen Guerra-Morales is a sexual assault dedicated counselor at Central Michigan University. The position was vacant for over a year before she came on in December of 2022, and she now splits her time between the counseling center and doing administrative work with Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA).
SAPA is a volunteer organization centered around crisis and chat lines for survivors of sexual assault.
Before taking on this role, Morales earned an undergraduate in psychology and a masters degree from the CMU counseling program.
Central Michigan Life sat down for an interview with Morales to discuss her experiences so far as the sexual assault dedicated counselor.
How did you get into this line of work?
Morales: I’ve always been fascinated with the human brain. Most of my experience has been with community mental health and while working there we see individuals from different paths of life and we treat anything and everything that comes through the door. I was fortunate enough to be selected to train on trauma evidence based practice modalities. I am actually very passionate about trauma; I really, really enjoy doing trauma work. What fascinates me the most is just seeing and observing, you know, the changes within my clients where they’re making progress and things are clicking. Being part of that process makes me feel honored.
I think what was attractive about this position is that it was specifically aimed to help individuals with trauma, so I wasn’t wearing a lot of different hats like I was in my prior job; I would work with adults and kids and teenagers and families, you know, work with issues like substance abuse or anxiety, depression, trauma, a little bit of everything. But here, I can just focus on trauma, and that was really attractive to me. And the whole SAPA program is amazing. I am just so proud of all the students that volunteer and participate in this program because it takes a lot and they leave here with some amazing skills.
Can you explain what you do in your role and how it pertains to students?
There’s a lot of different things that I do, but as a dedicated counselor, I provide group and individual therapy for students who have been impacted by sexual assault, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, stalking or harrassment. It’s a survivor support group so it’s very laid back, kind of joined together to be present with each other and support — as opposed to a rigid, structured group. And, you know, individual therapy for people who want that one-on-one experience to process and heal more specifically and focus on the nature of the trauma.
The other part of my position is to provide support and wellness for our SAPA advocates. I also help with managing scheduling related to the crisis call line, the SAPA line or the chat line. I also help students, or the SAPA advocates, with creating programs for awareness they present in the community or here at the university. Essentially, the biggest thing that I do for the advocates is to be here for them to be able to come in and then a safe place to talk through and process things. The work they do can be pretty hard, they’re exposed to trauma themselves while they’re still helping clients and survivors. So I’m here to help them process those things and also to provide support and opportunities for self-care.
Do you see a demand for your work at CMU?
When I started in December it was slowly building, but word of mouth spread very quickly and I was getting more and more referrals. I was getting at least two referrals per week. Things have slowed down a little bit I think because it was getting closer to spring break and students’ minds are elsewhere. I know that the particular service that I provide can be very hard or difficult for people who want to come in, you know, it’s very hard to talk about traumatic things, right? So I guess it ebbs and flows. Like, there’s going to be times that there might be a higher need or I see a little bit of an increase in referrals and vice versa. But my hope is that the word of mouth continues to spread.
Are there specific demographic groups that you see more of than others? What about gender?
(Within) the short amount of time that I’ve been here, I’ve had a nice mixture of clients, so I can’t really pinpoint one. I do know that there are minorities that are less likely to seek services just because of cultural beliefs and things like that. I am hispanic myself, and I think that could probably open the door for students that are minorities to feel more comfortable, so that’s my goal.
So far I have seen no males. All my clients have been female, either in an individual or group setting. I think that males will report less of this just because of the stigma. ‘You’re a man, and this stuff doesn’t happen to men.’ It’s also the fear of being made fun of or teased or anything like that. So it’s definitely a barrier we want to break because this could happen to anyone and services are available for everyone.
What do you think would hold a student back from seeking counseling center services for sexual assault?
Well, there’s the stigma associated with mental health. There’s shame, there’s guilt. And maybe not knowing about the resources or maybe some hesitation related to not being sure about services being confidential and things like that.
I feel like if I’m seeking mental health services, I kind of want to know who the therapist is going to be. Maybe I want to see a picture, maybe I want to see a short video they did on a website to just kind of get a feel for that person. You know what I mean? Because they’re going to go in and share very personal things. So I think that also could be a barrier — not knowing.
Do you see students who haven’t reported their assault to the police? Why wouldn’t they report the crime?
Of all the clients I’ve seen so far, none of them have reported anything to the police. And that is a very personal decision, because it involves a lot of different things. So, none have reported, but they do know that that’s an option if they decided to do that.
Once again, I think that the client is feeling very ashamed. Maybe they blame themselves for what happened or they feel like they’re not going to be supported. Maybe in their mind they don’t think it was a sexual assault or maybe they think it wasn’t enough to call it a sexual assault. Again, its that lack of knowledge of how Michigan law defines sexual assault.
Do college students understand exactly what sexual assault is?
(In) my experience here so far, the hardest thing for clients is to define whether it was sexual assault or if it wasn’t. And the reality is that based on the Michigan law, sexual assault is ‘any force or coercion towards an individual, to engage in any non-consentual sexual contact or sexual penetration.’
Any unwanted contact that’s sexual in nature is going to be considered sexual assault. And I think that’s hard for people to, I don’t know, wrap their head around, because they think that there has to be penetration or an injury or some physical assault along with it. But anything that’s unwelcome and unconsented is going to be considered sexual assault when it involves force or coercion.
You seem to work with a lot of sensitive topics, how do you take care of your own mental health?
I am very aware of being able to separate my work life from my home life and my personal life. I do a lot of self care activities such as going for walks and listening to music. I have two children and just how busy their lives are and the things that they do kind of keep me from getting distracted with things from my work. I try to do meaningful things that help ease my mind, and not just thinking about work.
To contact SAPA’s crisis line, use this phone number: (989) 774-2255
To communicate over text instead, message this number: (989) 621-3359
Applications to be a member of SAPA are also available on its website.
Use this link to book an appointment with Morales.
Other counseling center services can be found through its main website as well.