Never having been part of an athletic team or affiliated with Greek life, Brooke DeSipio, ‘06, ‘08G, spent her undergraduate years at Lehigh feeling isolated from the social scenes her peers engaged in. She said the party culture often made her feel unsafe, causing her to avoid it entirely.
In her senior year, she took a “life-changing” women, gender and sexuality studies class taught by professor Karen Hicks, who convinced her to stay at Lehigh for her master’s degree. DeSipio eventually returned — to the university she was once eager to leave — to create a more positive experience for future students.
Now, DeSipio is the founder, assistant dean and director of survivor support and intimacy education at Lehigh.
The Office of Survivor Support and Intimacy Education, formerly the Office of Gender Violence Education and Support, has been a beacon of safety and education for students at Lehigh since its inception in 2014. The office hosts a number of workshops, seminars and presentations as it works to make Lehigh a safe and open community.
The name change was made in August 2023, nearing the office’s 10-year anniversary, to shift away from the previous name’s emphasis on gender violence and to include their sex and intimacy education efforts as well.
“I have only known the new title to the office, but in my opinion, it feels less aggressive,” said Motahareh-Shirin Lotfaliani, ’24, the office’s graduate assistant. “It covers more of the areas we discuss in the office, because we do not only center our focuses around gender violence even though that is such an important aspect of our work.”
DeSipio said the immediate goal for the office is to ensure survivors know there is a place on campus that believes and advocates for them. The long-term goal is to further campus-wide conversations about these issues.
The office educates students about advocating for their peers, talks with the Lehigh University Police Department about reports of gender violence and sexual assault and hosts events with groups on campus throughout the year.
She said the educational component in these spaces includes programming about sexual education, healthy sexuality, bystander intervention, survivor support, gender violence and MeToo programming.
“The goal is to be in front of every student repeatedly,” DeSipio said. “This includes 5×10 events for first-year students, annual Greek life and residence hall presentations and so much more.”
As a graduate assistant, Lotfaliani facilitates training workshops, assists 5x10s and manages the social media and newsletter for the office.
Lotfaliani accepted the offer from DeSipio to work for the office at the end of the spring 2023 semester and started working in August 2023 after completing a six-week training program with Break The Silence and volunteering with them for a year.
“I came here from Iran when I was 25, which is a very patriarchal and male-dominated society,” Lotfaliani said. “I wanted to know more about my sexuality and found that there was a place to do that at Lehigh.”
Genevieve Powell, ‘23, got involved in the office after attending one of the residence hall workshops. Powell said the way the office approaches sex education and gender inequality inspired her to apply, wanting to help out wherever she could.
She said every space, especially with college-age people, needs something that covers these “tough” topics.
“There is going to be sexual assault. There are always going to be survivors. The only way to go on a healing journey is to prompt a conversation where people feel free to discuss freely,” Powell said. “If we ever want to prevent these things from happening in the future, education is our only bet.”
Most employees in the office are students. They do not have any formal leadership or executive positions, so Powell said everyone is pulling their own weight where it’s needed.
The team participates in weekly meetings where they discuss plans and changes to the newly branded office.
“I am hoping to continue to expand and grow the reach we have, but it is not possible without more staff,” DeSipio said. “We would also love more engagement from faculty and staff in the future. All the support we can get really helps with our efforts as a community.”