Liz Stahler brings experience, “warmth” to new position as sexual assault counselor

by Kelsey Flower | 10/21/15 7:56pm

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Liz Staller has assumed the new role as a counselor for supporting sexual assault survivors.
Source: Alice Harrison/The Dartmouth Staff

When Liz Stahler was 16, she was a sexual health educator on an AIDS action committee. After her sophomore year of college, she interned at a California prison, focusing on supporting female prisoners. Following a brief stint as a folk song writer and singer, she entered graduate school for social work, where she interned at Wellesley College in the counseling department. This August, Stahler joined the Dick’s House staff as a counselor devoted to supporting survivors of sexual assault, a new position at the College.

Coming from a fellowship in the counseling office at the University of California at Berkeley, Stahler said that the position at Dartmouth gave her the opportunity to do exactly the kind of work she wanted. Despite having moved across the country three times in the last five years, “the next thing I knew I was putting my poor cat back on a plane,” she said.

Stahler fits into a greater network of sexual assault resources on campus that includes the wellness center, Dick’s House counseling and human development, the judicial affairs adjudication process and Title IX coordinator Heather Lindkvist. She said she has spent her first few months at the College settling in and figuring out how things work here.

Stahler said a lot of her time so far has been coordinating with these other resources. She said she is trying to figure out how to both interface with the community and do outreach work while also preserving the privacy of what happens within the walls of her office.

Stahler said her job is going to be about 70 percent talking to students, running support groups and overseeing the sexual assault peer advisors.

Another portion will be organizing outreach and education around campus, such as workshops for faculty, staff and interested students, she said. These duties were previously handled by the wellness center, which now focuses on sexual assault prevention rather than support. Another facet of her job is being a consultant in the development of sexual assault policy and programs at Dartmouth, bringing a clinical perspective to the table.

“I am invested in the policies that happen in creating an inclusive and safe and welcoming environment,” she said.

Judicial affairs director Leigh Remy said that the perspective Stahler will provide in working groups about policies or training, such as ones giving feedback on the College’s new consent manual, will be important and helpful.

Assistant dean of student affairs and director of case management Kristi Clemens, who works with students in tough situations to help them receive academic accommodations, said she hopes the addition of Stahler to the counseling staff will show students that the College takes sexual assault seriously and is trying to support students in any way that it can, even if they don’t take advantage of the resources themselves.

Stahler said she sees two main places where sexual violence needs to be addressed on campus — handling perpetrators who are repeat offenders and are dangerous to others and increasing community conversations about sexual interactions.

“A lot of sexual interactions on campuses have to do with learning about sexual consent, respect and healthy sexual interactions,” Stahler said.

Stahler said she hopes to focus on developing language and community expectations and standards related to sexual violence.

“This will move students towards having more healthy sexual interactions and make assaults stand out more avidly,” she said. “I think that’s how the problem will get targeted.”

Stahler said her role as a counselor is important because almost all survivors of sexual assault have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for at least a month, and some experience them more chronically.

“It disrupts your ability to concentrate, your motivation, your sense of worth — it affects how you feel about yourself,” she said. “The social and academic impact of the symptom cluster and be really, really hard.”

Stahler said she is there to provide support, help students normalize their symptoms, connect them to resources and help them restore a sense of safety, wellness, meaning and self-worth.

“I can help hold the weight of someone’s story with them when it’s too heavy for them to hold alone,” she said.

It can be helpful for survivors to have a specific sexual assault “point person” to help them discuss their experience, Dartmouth Bystander Initiative manager Ben Bradley said.

The intense environment of the College makes this all a little bit harder, Stahler said. The stressful culture seems to “chop away at people.”

“It’s true at other schools, but feels intense here,” she said. “It could be the term length, but I think it’s more than that. The promise of being a student here, how high the expectations are, constantly trying to live up to them in so many different domains.”

The people that Stahler works with believe that her new role on campus is important and impactful.

Bradley said it can be difficult for survivors to come to terms with their experience while having to deal with other stressors of being a Dartmouth student. Stahler, Bradley said, is knowledgeable and qualified to support these students and is well-versed in the “ins and outs of supporting survivors.”

When the wellness center had a support role before, they were not able to be confidential in this role like Stahler is now, Remy said.

“[Stahler] doesn’t talk to me unless the student has asked for that,” Remy said. “For some students, knowing that level of privacy is reassuring.”

Stahler will be able to help students understand the adjudication process as well and help them with the emotional side of that process, Remy said. She will be able to have ongoing relationships with students after the adjudication process is over.

“[Stahler] came in with a working knowledge and now knows the specifics to Dartmouth investigations,” she said. “She knows what it would be like to go through that process, what can be triggering for that person, what can make a student feel supported. What [Stahler] offers and what a therapist offers is a way to say, ‘How does this affect today, how does this affect tomorrow, what do I see for myself moving forward.’”

All mentioned her warm, down-to-earth personality.

“She’s really passionate, energized, committed and really kind,” Bradley said.

Remy and Clemens both interviewed Stahler for the job.

“She showed up exactly who she is on a day-to-day basis,” Remy said. “That was in her clothing, but as you get to know her, it epitomizes who she is as a person.”

Clemens said out of all the candidates with whom she spoke, Stahler was the one who from whom she felt the most “genuine warmth.”

“I could see students connecting with her easily,” Clemens said.

Stahler said she liked being a counselor because often the things that people “hold so close” and can be ashamed of are also things that other people have experienced.

“I’m not easily shocked,” she said. “My own story has its crazy twists and turns and really bad falls, and I think I’m wacky and strange but at the same time a totally normal person. I really love people’s real stories — not the surface crap. There is nothing more powerful to me than being present with another person’s truth.”