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10 Questions With Yvette Willson, Director Of The Gender Equity Center

Penn State’s Gender Equity Center recently named Yvette Willson its newest director on February 21. She previously held the role of interim director since June but has now fully transitioned into the position.

The Gender Equity Center serves as a branch unit for Student Affairs and supports students in regards to gender, relationship and sexual violence, harassment, outreach, and other support services. The center is located in 204 Boucke.

We sat down with Willson to discuss her new role, her work in Centre County, and what the Gender Equity Center will look like with Willson as its newest director.

Onward State: For those who don’t know, what do you do as the director of the Gender Equity Center?

Yvette Willson: I oversee the entire operation of the Gender Equity Center. This includes supervising staff, developing and maintaining the budget, writing funding proposals, leading CARSV meetings (Coalition to Address Relationship and Sexual Violence), meeting with students who are in crisis and others who want to learn more about this work, serving as an advisor for students going through the Sexual Misconduct investigation process, conducting educational programs and events, collaborating with other units, researching new ways of educating students on sexual violence prevention, reviewing and updating our current curriculum, attending lots of meetings, assisting the campuses with their efforts in these areas, making recommendations to the university and others, speaking at various events, and much more.

OS: You were previously interim director before you officially filled the director role. What did you work on that helped to prepare you for the role you now hold?

YW: Really, it was looking at my interim role as an opportunity to make some changes, improve systems, build a solid team, and bring others into this work from across the university to move these issues forward. In all of that work, it laid the foundation to build from, grow from, and begin to move this work forward in a way that can be very impactful for our community.

OS: What can you bring to the university as the director of the Gender Equity Center?

YW: I bring a person who is not only committed to this work but very passionate about it. I have big dreams and goals to make Penn State a leader on these issues and a safer, more respectful, and equitable place for everyone.

OS: What is your biggest goal for the Gender Equity Center and how are you going to work toward this goal?

YW: My biggest goal is to make Penn State a place where we invest in sexual violence prevention education on a much larger and more life-changing scale. If we truly want to reduce sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and harassment, we must educate every student on these topics on an ongoing basis. The current system of getting a little education at the beginning of a student’s first year is not enough. We must do more. Students come here from all over the country and world, with different values, beliefs, and knowledge. If we want students to understand consent, practice healthy, respectful relationships, and live the Penn State values, we owe it to them to provide education on these topics on an ongoing basis.

My goal is to enact required education for each student on these topics for each year of attendance at Penn State. For example, a first-year student would get the basics on healthy relationships, consent, respecting boundaries, etc. Then, this knowledge will build in their second year where they will get a refresher and learn more. And each subsequent year will build on the priors. Further, there will be specialized sections on LGBTQIA+ relationships and other historically marginalized identities. We are an educational institution. If we want to change the culture at Penn State and build a safer, more respectful future for our students, we must do more and invest in better education.

OS: How has your experience as an attorney, prosecutor, and investigator played into the work you have done for Centre County and the university?

YW: I believe my past experience is invaluable for survivors of sexual assault and dating violence. As one who has prosecuted these cases, worked with law enforcement, and knows first hand how difficult it is to take a case through the criminal justice system from the investigation, to charges, to the preliminary hearing, to motions, to pretrial, to a jury trial, and hopefully, sentencing, I can share real examples of the process. This includes what it might look like, how long it can take, the challenges along the way, and what a survivor might expect. That kind of insight is incredibly important to someone who is trying to figure out what they should do.

Further, I can explain the differences to them about going through the criminal process compared to the University Sexual Misconduct process including what to expect and the pros and cons of each. And as a former investigator in the Sexual Misconduct office, I can share insights about the different options in that office. My experience handling Protection Order cases in court can also be a great benefit to someone who is considering filing for that, as well as my experience working with Centre Safe. 

OS: What initiative that the center is taking on are you most excited about and why?

YW: That would be our Traveling Advocate program. Our Survivor Advocate, Sara Neild, normally meets with students in person in our office in Boucke 204 or via Zoom. However, we just started our Traveling Advocate program where she will hold drop-in office hours in East and South Halls at different times each week. The idea behind this is that sometimes it can be really challenging for a survivor to think about scheduling an appointment, then schedule an appointment, then have to walk across campus to meet with the advocate. So, we are trying to remove these barriers and bring the advocate to them. That way, anyone who would like to have a confidential meeting with the advocate simply has to stop in as they are walking through the commons area. They can also schedule an appointment to meet there instead of walking to Boucke if that would be easier.

OS: How are you going to impact the lives of students in this role, and what does that mean to you?

YW: This is the part of the role that I find most rewarding. I really enjoy working with students, connecting with them, providing support, helping them on their journey, and advocating for them. When someone has experienced interpersonal violence, their choices, rights, and power were taken away from them. One of my most important goals is to try and help them rebuild their inner strength. That can take a long time, if ever, as everyone’s healing journey is different. There is no magic length of time to recover. So, working with each person to help them move forward, whatever that looks like, is very important. Taking time, believing them, and providing overall unconditional support is crucial in truly helping them. When a student tells me that I helped them, that means the world to me and I know I am truly making a difference.

OS: How does the Gender Equity Center partner with other organizations, both on and off campus?

YW: We partner with other organizations on a regular basis. We do this by reaching out to different units or organizations that may have a similar interest in the work we are doing. We then meet with them, discuss what our joint goals are, and determine if we can combine efforts to do something even more impactful. If so, then the fun begins in planning the event.

Last fall, we joined efforts with Centre Safe to have a float in the Homecoming parade and pass out candy. With the candy, we taped on sheets of paper that said “consent is sweet.” Then, halfway through the parade, we ran out of candy, and someone had to run to McClanahan’s to buy more candy so we could continue to give it away.

Another example of our partnering is with our “It’s On Us Penn State” campaign. For this, we have collaborated with the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, and Health Promotion and Wellness to develop three unique and engaging peer-led workshops that promote sexual violence prevention and increase support for survivors by focusing on innovative intersectional programming to eliminate all forms of oppression which contribute to the perpetuation and continuation of sexual and gender-based violence. Also, students who attend a workshop receive a free “It’s On Us Penn State” t-shirt.

OS: What does the Gender Equity Center mean to you and to the community?

YW: The Gender Equity Center is a place where all students can feel safe, supported, and believed. It’s a place where we can learn to educate others on the dynamics of interpersonal violence, how to be an upstander, how to support survivors, and how to change the future of sexual violence at Penn State.

OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur, which would you be and why?

YW: This is easy. A Brontosaurus. They were gentle herbivore creatures who had the strength of a Mama Bear to protect their kids.

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About the Author

Mackenna Yount

Mackenna is a sophomore food science major from Manitou Springs, Colorado and is one of Onward State's associate editors. She loves food, is addicted to coffee, and can give you random facts or bad jokes that you didn't ask for. Ask her to bake gluten-free goodies so she has an excuse to try out new cupcake flavors. Mackenna can be contacted via Twitter @mackennayount (especially if you want to show off your best dad jokes) or you can shoot her an email at [email protected]

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