Returning to School as a Survivor of Domestic Violence

By Emilie Trepanier

I tried and I failed. The semester following my assault, I spent more time in bed than in class, and the times I went to class I was too anxious to speak to anyone. So, I got my tuition money back after proving I wasn’t going to pass my classes and that I hadn’t spent that much time in them anyway (yes, some universities do this!) and gave it a whirl the following semester.

Though completing a full-time course load with passing grades still took a few more semesters to accomplish, I still did it in the end.

When a victim of trauma makes the decision to go back to school it is going to be tough. Even after therapy and healing, the stresses of school and classmates weigh a bit differently. It’s not just about maintaining relationships with others and doing your homework; it’s about fighting that feeling of dread that anyone could hurt you but you also trying to trust they won’t. When survivors of abuse have been beaten down, it’s less difficult to push away the very real voices that once told you you can’t and that you aren’t good enough. 

When I made the decision to get back to class, the best thing I did was tell my teachers about my situation. I had one professor who asked every student to fill out a paper which included “List any personal concerns that may help me as your guide,” but this question inspired me to communicate with all of my professors. It is scary to be vulnerable, but more often than not: your professors care about you. A lot. Weird concept, right?

After finally opening up to a different professor about the depression and social anxiety I was facing and telling them I was sure I needed to drop the class late, they instead sat me down and we had a heart-to-heart. The professor who had written the sassiest comments I’d ever read turned into a trusted confidant, and made me a deal: “I won’t add your previous absences to your grade; but from here on out, you can’t miss another class. Also, try to make a few comments in class, just so I can see you’re paying attention and doing the readings.”

The first comment I made in class was with a trembling voice and too quiet for most of my peers to hear, but my professor guided me through my comment and turned it around, so at least some of the class thought I was saying something remotely profound about Paradise Lost.

Again, your professors want you to succeed. A professor with the added knowledge that you once faced abuse is more likely to be compassionate when you disclose your triggers to them. Some professors are more helpful and compassionate than others, but it’s the compassionate ones who will motivate you in the end.

There are several scholarships for victims of trauma, including some given by Break the Silence:

Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence Applications open January 2nd, 2020

Live Your Dream Applications open now

Scholarships for Women Several applications listed

Domestic Abuse Victim Scholarships Several applications listed

Some universities have their own scholarships as well, such as writing scholarships. Make sure you check these out at your own educational institution. 

Many schools also provide counseling. The university I attended provided $10 therapy sessions with a grad student in the field of therapy. Even if this is just a way for a victim to vent about their stressors, it is a helpful tool. Therapists serve as cheerleaders who also offer coping mechanisms.

My university also had a  department specifically for mentally ill students; Mental Health Services. After being cleared as someone who deals with mental health issues (such as providing a letter from a therapist or doctor who prescribes your medication), the department sends a letter to the student’s professors at the beginning of the semester, so the professor is made aware of the student’s situation and that Mental Health Services will back them up. Some tools they offered for students was a pen that recorded lectures, in case a student was having a day where they couldn’t pay attention but needed to be in class; special permission to take tests in a different room from the other students; special permission for granting extended time on projects, as well as several other helpful tools. We make fun of educational institutions as money hungry machines, but they really do care about the success of their students more than we realize. 

Spending my time in class in a doodling daze and anxious about being there added to the exhaustion. However, I was very lucky to have close friends who didn’t judge me for sleeping all day and who listened when I felt brave enough to ask for help. Having at least one person who understands how demanding school is by your side while you work through your trauma in addition to class is life changing.

Making the decision to go back to school following domestic violence is not easy, but so many people are behind you and want to help. It won’t be a walk in the park, and it will make the roller coaster of tests and group projects that much dizzier; but, you are strong and you will succeed. As they say, “Without a little lift, the ballerina falls.”

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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