Government and Economics
New York, Social Studies 6-12 or Special Ed K-12
Austin Smith gets cheeky when you ask him to talk about himself. “Well, my spaceship crash landed in Kansas,” he starts off. Then he laughs and apologizes for being bad at telling his own story.
Turns out, you really just have to ask him about the work he’s done. His answer about his high school activities really let his personality show as well. “I was in marching band (alto sax) and mock trial in high school. Catch me on a Saturday night and I’ll come off more like a saxophonist. I’m professional right now, very clarinet right now… but…”
After purportedly “peaking” in high school, Austin has gone on to do even more in college. One of the first organizations Austin became a leader in is Voices Against Violence (VAV), the CMHC-based initiative to spread campus awareness about consent and healthy relationships.
Austin led the bi-annual Speak Out Event for 7 semesters. He creates a space for survivors of assault and domestic violence to tell their story and receive support. “I’ve found it’s had a big impact,” he said. “People will come up to me during the night or afterwards or sometimes I’ll just be walking somewhere months after and people will say ‘Hey, I remember you host this thing.’ They tell me that they heard someone talk about something, and it helped them. The event helps people know they aren’t alone.”
Austin’s experience with this program gave him insight into the way victims of sexual assault process the event and, hopefully, begin to heal from it. “We know in our brains the concept that, something that happened or was done to someone else isn’t their fault, but just because we know sometimes doesn't mean we feel it,” he said. “Sometimes what it takes is to hear others talk about what happened to them. The victim realizes they would never blame another person for their experience, and so they can stop blaming themselves too.”
Austin does a lot of care-work here at UT. He works with VAV, and has been an RA in the quad for 3 years. His unique view of unmet needs in the student population led him to become involved in the Interpersonal Violence Peer Support (IVPS) program — a place where students can come talk to other students about their experiences and receive support and direction in a place that isn’t required to report to the Title IX office.
“This my second year doing that.” Austin told me, then he laid out the way it all works. A student comes in with something to talk about and Austin or one of the other peer supporters will use their training (Austin his 80+ hours under his belt) to figure out what the person needs, whether it’s someone to listen or connection to specific resources.
The benefit of IVPS are numerous. The program gives people a place to talk about what happened without anyone judging or the worry that they’ll have to open a Title IX case. It also offers a staff of highly trained students to connect victims to resources and support that they may not be able to otherwise find. IVPS has an office in the SSB, and they’re open for walk-ins.
“We just make the space what they need,” he said. “I’m so proud of that. If I could point at something that is my legacy I would point at that.”