VOICE Center addresses issues of sexual violence

The MSU VOICE Center provides a wide-range of free and confidential services to those in the community affected directly or indirectly by domestic and sexual violence. VOICE stands for Victim Options in the Campus Environment.

The VOICE center has a 24-hour confidential support line where advocates can provide individuals with support and assistance. The center also has walk-in hours are from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and appointments can be made as needed.

The center relies heavily on volunteer efforts — there are close to 60 volunteers with over 40 hours of training who provide regular assistance to those who call or visit the center. The advocates also provide educational outreach to students on campus. Additionally, around a hundred other volunteers with eight hours of basic training volunteer at the center on a more limited basis, according to VOICE Center Coordinator Alanna Sherstad.

Sherstad has seen a number of positive changes as the center has evolved. “Five years ago we had about 40 people access our services … last year and this year we’re closer to about 400,” she said. “We have increased the number of people we’re serving and reaching, in large part because we have a really good crew of volunteer advocates and staff members who are able to provide a safe place for students on campus to talk about issues that are going on.”

Joe Schumacher, a senior in political science and a VOICE Center advocate, started volunteering at the center in his sophomore year. “It is an issue that is personal with me, I have a lot of friends and family members that have been affected by various types of interpersonal violence.” Since starting as a volunteer advocate, Schumacher became more involved in the center’s educational programs and is now a staff member.

“The VOICE Center is unique. A lot of college campuses will have an office like the VOICE Center, but we’re unique in that our university fully funds our operation. There’s a lot of offices that do the work that we do that operate off of the different grants that are given out. We have seen our university take the next step and say ‘Hey, we realize that this is important to our students in actually writing this into the budget,’” Schumacher said.

With the increasing number of individuals accessing the center’s services, the staff and volunteers are working to determine the success rates of their outreach programs in preventing sexual and domestic violence. VOICE Center representatives spend a considerable time presenting to different organizations including fraternity and sorority life, Bobcat athletics, student organizations and students in classroom settings; last semester Schumacher and fellow advocate Hannah Stark presented to over 5,000 incoming freshman during the fall semester alone. To measure the success of their work, the center, along with their MSU campus partners, has been working on various evaluation tools and surveys to measure the impact of their outreach. The center is hopeful that these evaluations will provide a “snapshot” of where the MSU campus is standing with these issues.

“Unfortunately there hasn’t been a lot of research done to show what kinds of prevention work and what do not work,” Schumacher said, “Here at MSU we like to be on the cutting edge of all kinds of different research … so we thought why not in this area as well?”

While she was an undergraduate in Fort Collins, Colorado, Sherstad began volunteering at a community-based rape crisis center and eventually served as the executive director before working as a victim advocate in a district attorney’s office. Her dedication to her work lead her to apply for a job opening at MSU’s VOICE Center, where she has been for the past six years.

“I was really excited to come to Montana, but more importantly to work in a university setting where I would have the opportunity to work with student volunteers and activists as well as students who were needing support,” Sherstad said.

Part of Student Health Services, the center is funded through student fees. The center was originally founded in the 1990s with grant funding from MSU’s administration, due to the work of Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA), one of the oldest running student organizations on campus.

As the VOICE Center continues to work towards assisting students and the local community in dealing with issues of domestic and sexual violence, Sherstad hopes that students will continue to access the services the center provides. “The most important thing to know is that we’re here for the MSU community. The advocates at the VOICE Center will listen, believe, and then provide support and options…We’re here to give power back to survivors by presenting them with all of their options and allowing them to choose their own path to healing and recovery.”

To find out more about the VOICE Center’s many upcoming events, visit their page at facebook.com/MSUVoice. To utilize the VOICE Center or to find out more information, call 994-5682 or visit their office in SUB 370 during their office hours (Monday – Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.). The 24-Hour Confidential Support Line can be reached at 994-7069.