Student Pushes for Conversations on Consent at The University of Maryland

By Charlotte Crook

Elena LeVan is a senior psychology major from Washington, New Jersey, whose work to prevent sexual assault will leave a legacy at this university.  

LeVan is the Student Government Association’s Director of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and the Chair of its Sexual Misconduct Prevention Committee. Through her positions, and involvement in the student organization Preventing Sexual Assault (PSA) she works to open conversations about consent, provide support for survivors, and raise awareness about sexual assault at the university. 

“She’s one of those people that gets things done,” said Ben Cohen, the SGA Vice President of Financial Affairs and good friend of LeVan, “I can’t think of someone who is better equipped to talk to people.” 

LeVan was always interested in social issues, particularly women’s issues, she said. Her freshman year, LeVan was in the Justice and Legal Thought Scholars Program. By the end of the year, she wanted to get involved on campus, but didn’t know where. 

LeVan sent applications to multiple organizations hoping to get involved. PSA was one that responded, and she chose to pursue it. She and her boyfriend at the time both ended up getting on the executive board. She eventually became Assistant President in 2019, and wanted to become more involved in this issue, she said.

“The more I was learning, the more passion I was getting about it because there’s so much to be done,” LeVan said.

Now serving as Director of Sexual Misconduct Prevention in SGA, LeVan is dedicated to working to make the way people talk about sexual misconduct inclusive and bringing conversations about consent into people’s daily lives.

“She was so involved with so many organizations and initiatives that’s she left not only a huge impact but big shoes to fill,” said good friend and fellow Sexual Misconduct Prevention Committee member, Josie Urrea, “She inspires me and has helped me get to where I want to be for next year because she’s a good person.”

LeVan recounted a program from SGA where she and other members went on Route One at midnight, a busy spot on a weekend. They handed out Hershey Kisses to students after asking if they wanted a kiss, and talked to them about affirmative consent, she said.

LeVan said that it was important to bring consent to the forefront of people’s minds in that environment, especially freshmen. 

Ben Cohen said that she and her committee have done a really great job of shifting the conversation of consent to something positive. Teaching people that you should ask consent, rather than teaching people that they shouldn’t do something without consent has been effective and opened more people up to conversations, Cohen said.

“I think that generally, students agree that sexual assault is bad, but not everyone agrees on what constitutes sexual assault,” LeVan said. 

She said that the university is currently waiting to redefine sexual misconduct, as the federal definition is about to change. LeVan hopes that once they are redefined, the definitions will be more inclusive of all kinds of sexual misconduct.

She said in the meantime, people can have their own conversations. 

“Dealing with this pandemic is a really good time to talk about consent,” she said. 

She suggested that people ask to send photos to another person and or can ask before sexting. She said that people can even ask for consent in everyday situations by asking before you hug someone, or asking before you post a picture of someone.

LeVan hopes to see the university put emphasis on conversations about consent communication even in their existing programs through CARE to Stop Violence, the on-campus resource center for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. 

“We do a lot of really great work with bystander intervention right now, but even with that, the bystander intervention training should be expanded,” she said.

LeVan recognizes that some groups on campus may have good reasons for not wanting to talk to someone like a police or security officer, so she said it’s important to provide everyone with appropriate resources. 

“While this is largely a women’s issue, it’s also largely not a women’s issue, you know, it affects everyone,” LeVan said.

She said that beginning with intentional programming and outreach, the barriers that some communities face should be kept in mind. She said one of the best ways of achieving this is through communication with said community.

“You’re going to the group and asking, ‘What do you need,? What is helpful for you?’ Instead of assuming that you can give the same programming to every group,” she said.

Other people in her committee and on campus have noticed her efforts.

“I think what makes her such a good leader is that she is always taking others’ opinions, critiques, etc. and always looking to include everyone,” Josie Urrea said.

LeVan has also worked in this field off-campus, through her internship with Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a state-wide organization that works with crisis centers that directly work with survivors. The organization also provides training and resources to communities, and can provide legal assistance and advice to survivors.

LeVan describes her internship as one of the best experiences she’s ever had. She said it’s where she met her mentor, was able to put together programming for high schools, and do research.

While her post-graduation plans to work with the Peace Corps in Guatemala may change due to COVID-19, her plan to work with nonprofits and eventually go to law school still stand.

“What I’ve always wanted to do is help people in whatever I’m doing,” she said.

Featured Photo Credit: Hannah Stryker/Bloc Reporter.

Charlotte Crook is a journalism major and can be reached at ccrook10@gmail.com

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