Among all types of violence in the U.S, the one that affects the greatest number of youth is dating violence. The same holds true of college-aged students. Yet many schools and universities do a poor job of teaching young people about dating violence and about what constitutes a healthy relationship. When they do, the typical model is to devote one class session, either via a video or guest speaker. Campuses with more resources might call in a well-known speaker but still tend to host one-time events. These do not necessarily reach all students, and oftentimes the programs are quite passive and not engaging to students.
Service-learning is one pedagogical method that has been applauded for engaging students, in particular on social justice issues. Service-learning involves having students assist community partners with their work while also gaining a better understanding of course material. Further, service-learning advances the school or university as it becomes more fully involved in the community.
Since 2011, I have been coordinating a campus-community collaborative program to raise awareness about dating violence that also incorporates a service-learning component. The College Brides Walk (CBW) was birthed when I met activist Josie Ashton, who completed the original Bride’s March in 2001 in honor of Gladys Ricart, a woman who was murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend on the day she was to wed another man. Agustin Garcia gained access to the location where she was posing for photos and on September 26, 1999, shot her in front of her family. Ashton was appalled not just by the case but by the subsequent media attention, much of which blamed Ricart for “moving on too quickly” and blamed the murder on his “jealous rage.” With permission from the Ricart family, Ashton donned her own wedding gown and walked from where the murder happened in New Jersey down to Miami. This spectacle of a woman walking in her wedding gown generated much-needed conversation about dating and domestic violence, helping to correct many misconceptions about the issues. I met Ashton at a speaking engagement, and we determined that we should bring her walk to campuses, as college students need this information and rarely attend walks in the community. Working with partners at many other campuses, we started the College Brides Walk (CBW).
More than a walk, CBW includes speakers, workshops, exhibits, multimedia, arts, and ongoing opportunities for service. Students have helped plan the events, researched information to be presented at them, performed songs, spoken word, dance and poetry, helped set up and tear down, coordinated marketing and social media efforts, reached out to additional community partners, and more. Feedback from students involved in serving with CBW has been great, as they note their general lack of knowledge about the issues of dating and domestic violence and how the activities helped correct misconceptions they held, as well as the fact that they “enjoyed” their participation. Students note that enjoy is a difficult word given the troubling issue that is the focus of the movement, yet they like that they get to be part of something and feel good that they contributed. Further, students note that it is great to get to learn about resources on campus and in the community, as we invite our campus sources and area nonprofit organizations to table at the event and usually incorporate a panel of speakers on local resources as well. Many students then go on to engage with these agencies as volunteers or even interns. Further, students appreciate that we partner with other campuses and schools and thus they get to interact with students from different colleges, universities and high schools.
We had to adapt our efforts in 2021 due to the pandemic. Like it did for everything, COVID-19 offered both challenges and opportunities. We held the event virtually, encouraging participants to conduct their own walk safely in their community and document it with photos and video. Because it was all virtual, we were able to expand the number of sessions we offered throughout the month and make them available to people outside of South Florida. PJSA became a co-sponsor, and several members had students attend these events. We also had to identify remote service opportunities. Every year we create a memorial powerpoint that we also download into hard copy signs that features photos and descriptions of people who have lost their lives to domestic or dating violence. My colleagues and I have generally done the research for this, but this year I was able to have some students remotely conduct the research.
Importantly, we recognize that the bridal imagery may be off-putting to men who want to get involved, which reflects historical views that domestic violence is a “woman’s issue.” While we retain the name and imagery due to the origin of the movement, we work very hard to reach out to men and boys to get them involved. The service-learning component of the event helps with that, as the courses that require service-learning, notably Perspective Consciousness and Social Justice and Introduction to Theology, are required for General Education and this students of all genders and backgrounds need to engage in service for course credit. We introduce this service option to students at the beginning of the spring semester and in doing so, make it clear that it not just for women but for everyone to learn how to disrupt abusive relationships and assist those in need.
We are also getting prepared to launch a peer education program, Peace in Every Relationship, which will include extensive training for interested students, who will then provide presentations on dating violence and healthy relationships on campus and in the community.
We welcome the chance to offer more information about the College Brides Walk and to help other campuses start their own. For additional detail, check out our website at www.collegebrideswalk.com or contact Laura Finley, email@example.com.