In my sophomore year at Princeton, I decided — like many Tigers — to participate in a study-abroad program. As an English major with an insatiable passion for Shakespeare, my decision to apply as a year-long visiting student to Worcester College, Oxford, felt instinctive. I spent the summer of 2012 prior to my scholarly sojourn dreaming of Shakespeare productions at the Swan, European travels, and hours of essay-writing in the Radcliffe Camera.
All of these visions came true. I fell easily into Oxonian life, relishing the emphasis on independent study and developing a network of friendships that remains, today, one of my most cherished. I became a Bodleian regular, participated in various theater productions, and gorged myself on clotted cream and scones. Life away from Princeton felt rewarding and vivid, and I sensed that this extraordinary year at Oxford would prepare me for my final year at Princeton in a way no other institution could.
It certainly did, but not simply from an academic perspective.
Oxford’s trimester schedule offers students a luxurious six weeks of holiday between terms, so in March 2013, I purchased a Eurail Pass, filled a small backpack, and set off on a monthlong, solo wander about Europe. I meandered in a somewhat predictable fashion through Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and, finally Italy, my journal bulging with train-ride musings, and my cheap little Kodak camera filled with images of churches, bridges, and spires.
The steep exchange rate in Britain at the time meant that these travels were on a veritable shoestring: Between hostel stays, I relied on CouchSurfing, a platform that connects travelers with local hosts for free accommodation. At the time, this growing fixture of the still-burgeoning sharing economy felt too good to be true; I met several individuals who had devoted the better part of the last decade to hosting travelers and eagerly sharing their cities, all without receiving a cent. Given this track record, I assumed the host I met in Padua, Italy, an Italian police officer with several years’ accumulation of five-star reviews, came from the same mold of altruistic people. Yet this individual, after a day of friendly sightseeing near Venice, offered me a cup of chamomile tea spiked with a high dose of surgical anesthetic and raped me, likely repeatedly, in the 36 hazy hours that followed.
I managed to escape eventually, although still under influence of the drug; I traveled to Prague and then London, where friends urged me to report the assault to Scotland Yard. Unknown to me, the witness statement I filed in England would signal the starting point of a grueling seven-year journey in pursuit of international justice: I’d learn in 2015 that my rapist had similarly assaulted at least 14 other women travelers, and these survivors and I have spent the last four years urging legal action in the slow-paced, patriarchal court of Padua.
Upon my return from Oxford to Princeton, I remained virtually silent about what had happened. In fact, I have not shared my story with the Princeton community in any full capacity in the seven years since I was assaulted, despite the profound extent to which this crime has impacted my academic performance, emotional well-being, and professional aspirations.
Mentions of sexual violence and what to do in a dangerous situation abroad were not components of my orientation prior to arriving in Oxford.
There are several reasons why I remained mute. First, as a visiting student, I received relatively little guidance prior to and during my time at Oxford from either Worcester or Princeton; I coordinated my plane travel, student visa, medical insurance, and tuition payments largely independently. I felt, for this reason, quite alone in the United Kingdom, unattached in multiple respects. In the wake of the crime, I was only dimly aware of the resources available to me, and credit much of the action I took to the support of my friends, who themselves contacted local police and coordinated a rape exam. I placed one call to Princeton University Health Services, yet do not recall receiving any advice beyond consolation that I was likely doing everything I could.
My geographic distance from my alma mater, inability to confide in the majority of my Oxonian peers about my assault, and blurred recollections of rape cohered into one belief: Perhaps I had not really been raped after all. This confused conviction — a dangerous one many survivors nevertheless hold — lingered throughout my final year at Princeton, keeping me away from resources I had no idea were mine to use. I did not know, for example, that study-abroad incidents like mine are covered under Title IX policy. I also presumed that such a story did not fit the Princeton I’d come to know — one that emphasized forward intellectual motion and a kind of buoyancy of learning and did not have time for sordid stories like this one.
I find that there is a place at Princeton, however, for this story: I’m sharing it now because I feel it adds significant dimension to conversations already taking place about sexual misconduct and violence at Princeton and abroad. I join my voice to those others urging more effective, robust, and survivor-oriented resources and reporting processes for on-campus Tigers who have experienced sexual violence in any capacity. Yet I argue further — I ask for such changes to apply to any Princeton student who experiences sexual violence, on and off-campus. This includes international students at Princeton.
I want to ensure that adequate infrastructure — emotional, academic, fiscal, and legal — is in place for survivors like myself. And, more importantly, I want to do everything I can to minimize and eliminate future cases like mine. The University briefly addressed sexual misconduct abroad in its most recent Joint Committee report. Yet I was dismayed at its footnote declaration that “in the rare instances that sexual misconduct abroad has been reported, it has most often involved ‘street harassment’ by strangers.” Suggesting that the only sexual danger students face abroad is in the form of street catcalls not only perpetuates a dangerous myth, it also reiterates a rape culture that minimizes survivor experiences and presumes that most perpetrators are unknown to assault victims (in truth, eight of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim). I stand with the students who claim that the Joint Committee report’s discussion of sexual misconduct abroad is inadequate and disregards the personal testimonies of impacted Princetonians.
It is not my intention to direct blame at anyone or any department, especially as what I wish to address appears to be a universal issue. I am adamant about using my case as a means of positively evolving what I feel is one of the most admirable higher-education institutions in the nation. In my own research and conversations, I find many people are reluctant even to discuss the risk of violence, sexual or otherwise, that students face when traveling abroad. International orientation programs at universities may discuss resources available to students who are victims of crimes abroad, but this is by no means ubiquitous. Mentions of sexual violence and what to do in a dangerous situation abroad were not components of my orientation prior to arriving in Oxford; the most helpful item I received was a document with “translations” between American and British English. This is why I hope to inspire a new conversation on campus and within the alumni community: one that is frank about the intersection of rape culture and international travel and strives to provide adequate resources to student travelers before and during their programs.
I am also speaking up out of solidarity with my fellow Princeton survivors on the heels of a powerful #MeToo movement that, as we are learning, does not spare anyone, including those advantaged with an Ivy League education. I think there is an assumption out there that “privilege” — a loaded term, but one worth mentioning here — is a security blanket against heinous crime, but this assumption wildly misses the mark of reality.
I’m lucky to say that, in the years since my visit to Oxford, I’ve achieved what many call justice. As of June 2019, my fellow plaintiffs and I helped convict a serial rapist to 13 years in prison, a scant but groundbreaking sentence in the history of the Italian legal system. Scripps’ Washington bureau has documented this experience in “Verified,” a podcast (https://bit.ly/verified-pod) that was released on Feb. 24 through Stitcher, and I have documented my perspectives of that significant year in a memoir. I have also, in collaboration with another survivor from my case, launched Women International, an initiative that will advocate for safe, empowered travel among young people and ultimately provide financial resources to survivors of violence abroad who elect to seek justice. I am hoping that Women International’s first steps can begin at Princeton.
I came to Princeton from a small, underserved community in Montana, a wide-eyed kid hungry for everything; Princeton empowered me with the knowledge of infinite possibility and every scholar’s capacity to change the world for the better. It was not in the lines of Shakespeare that I would find such a capacity on my own, yet I do not grieve this fact; I am only all the more emboldened to open the door for survivor empowerment, global accountability, and voices that very much need to be heard.
Sexual Assault Abroad: A University Response
PAW asked Michele Minter, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, for an update on how Princeton is addressing this issue:
I am deeply saddened to learn of Ms. McGunagle’s experience while studying abroad. The University seeks to support any member of the campus community who has experienced sexual misconduct. Here is some information regarding Princeton’s approach to reducing travel-related risks and increasing support related to sexual misconduct.
For all members of the campus community, the Policy on Sex Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct remains in effect during University-sponsored programs or activities such as travel, as does access to campus resources and reporting options. This includes 24-hour on-call access to the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education (SHARE) office, which is a survivor-centered, trauma-informed confidential resource that provides crisis response, support, advocacy, education, and referral services. In 2019, a new Global Safety and Security unit was created within the Office of the Associate Provost for International Affairs and Operations, which will provide additional support for travelers. This will include increased educational resources and support for travelers prior to departure as well as crisis-response services during their time away from campus.
The University provides training to students who will be studying abroad and to faculty/staff accompanying such trips, including providing information about sexual misconduct and how to seek assistance. We are in the process of expanding this training and developing additional best practices for travel, including field work, conferences, and independent research.
Princeton’s efforts to reduce risk and increase support related to sexual misconduct are an ongoing project, and there is still more to be done. Individuals who would like to learn about this important work may reach out to my office. We share Ms. McGunagle’s commitment to trying to make sure that no campus community member has such an experience in the future.