Student-Athletes Making a Difference Through Peer Advocates Program

By Rachel Zarazan Staff

KINGSTON, R.I. - As students there are many classes that don’t just further your education, but further the type of person you are. 

Keith Labelle, Coordinator of the Violence Prevention & Advocacy Services Program at the University of Rhode Island, has dedicated himself to spreading awareness of violence against women. He has conducted trainings on sexual assault, domestic violence, and substance abuse since 2001. Aside from speaking to groups such as fraternities, athletes, and incoming freshman, Labelle also teaches multiple classes on campus that discuss the issues he so strongly believes in.

Former Rhode Island volleyball player and senior captain Ashley Tennant is a teacher assistant for one of Labelle’s classes this semester, GWS 351: Violence Prevention. This class covers issues pertaining to violence against women including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and international violence. Many student-athletes take this class and even decide to become Peer Advocates after.

"This class really educates and allows people to see things that occur behind closed doors and gives people like me a chance to be a voice for all the victims who can’t or won’t speak up," said Shomari Watts, a member of the Rhode Island football team who took the class last fall and is now a Peer Advocate. "This has been one of my favorite classes thus far at URI because it opened my eyes to a subject that I had not been very educated on."

Nearly half of the class consists of student-athletes. Tennant feels it is important for athletes to represent the University and to be leaders on campus. 

"Because athletes are a large group on campus, and a large group that is looked up to on campus, we have a powerful presence that can really make an impact," Tennant said.

Athletes are easily stereotyped, but any stereotype can be turned into a positive. By taking this class and promoting violence awareness, student-athletes are able to make a powerful statement. The male involvement also shows that men and women are working together in a partnership.  

"To see so many athletes in the class enables other URI students to see them in a different environment," Tennant said. "Now they are not just consumed in their sport, but doing something to benefit the campus and make it a better and safer environment. Just because we are athletes, doesn’t mean we don’t experience what every other student goes through."

The course delves into subjects that people aren’t always comfortable seeing or talking about. A person may be aware and know that violence is an issue, but it takes a different turn when you are faced with statistics and videos on such a horrible problem.

One in 4 women is sexually assaulted during her lifetime, and 42 percent of college women have been a victim of some form of sexual assault. Annually, 1.4 million women are stalked. The more statistics that are presented, the more disturbing it gets.

Violence is happening all around us every day, and although it may not be completely preventable, Labelle and Tennant want students to at least be aware of how to stand up to it and be informed on how help those who are affected. 

"This class has a huge impact whether you’re a student-athlete or a student because it makes everything more real," Tennant said. "We use a lot of videos, statistics, and read other people's personal experiences, which makes it a reality for the students. Many of them are in shock when they hear the numbers and don’t even believe it right away."

The Violence Prevention course covers various matters such as prison rape, children who witness domestic violence, women trafficking, childhood sexual assault, honor killings and more. There is no end to how far violence goes; it is an ongoing issue. By constantly informing people and making them aware, it is a way to stand up to the violence and work together.

"Although the issues were very tough and the movies were fairly disturbing to watch, it was very informative and crucial to the course topics," said Jill Anderson, a junior on the URI women's volleyball team. Like Watts, she took the class in the fall and is now a Peer Advocate. "The most helpful part of this course to me is understanding how violence affects every one of us, whether we realize it or not."

As a TA in the class, Tennant reads the journals the students maintain during the semester. 

"It's interesting to see the students' progress; in the beginning it's more of the students just reporting what they see and it eventually becomes more about how they feel about it and how they’ve evolved," Tennant said. "In the journals, we also get to learn about personal experiences. It’s powerful to know that they are comfortable sharing that information with us. Knowing that people in the class have gone through what we are talking about allows us to let them know we are here to help, and they are not alone."

The Peer Advocates at URI have recently reached out to all the sports teams about presenting to them on the many topics of violence. The more groups that can be informed, the safer place the campus becomes. 

Just because a student isn’t a Peer Advocate, doesn’t mean that they can't reach out. Athletes, students, faculty and staff all have the power to make a change in this constant battle to spread peace and not violence. 

The Peer Advocate office is located on campus in the Women’s Center at 22 Upper College Road. To contact the Peer Advocates office, call 401.874.9293, or for the Violence Prevention and Advocacy Services office, call 401.874.5222.