Melissa Wilkerson, UNL victim advocate, poses for a portrait in her office in the Nebraska Union on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Upon entering Melissa Wilkerson’s office, students are greeted with soft couches, the scent of essential oils and patience. A piece of art hanging above Wilkerson’s usual seat reads, “I believe you. It’s not your fault. Thank you for trusting me.”

As the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s first in-house victim advocate, Wilkerson is cultivating an oasis — a place where students can find relief amidst heavy circumstances.

Wilkerson, who is coming up on one year at UNL, was hired after the university cut ties with Lincoln-based advocacy group Voices of Hope. Working in UNL’s Center for Advocacy, Response & Education, she serves survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Since starting this position on Dec. 17, 2018, Wilkerson said she has made an effort to build relationships across organizations and have a presence on campus so people know about CARE’s services.

“One of the first things I needed to do was understand what those resources and opportunities for help that already existed on this campus were,” she said. “I feel good about the relationships that we've built in the short time here … There’s more work to do, but I'm comfortable with what we've been able to accomplish thus far.”

A big accomplishment for CARE was moving from its location in the University Health Center to its current location on the third floor of the Nebraska Union. Here, Wilkerson said, the center has an open-door policy, which wasn’t possible before when they were behind the locked doors of Counseling and Psychological Services. 

Since moving to the new space on Aug. 20, Wilkerson said she’s had the opportunity to meet many students and other members of the community she wouldn’t have met otherwise.

“I didn't have the same accessibility or, maybe just as important, I didn't have the visibility,” she said. “Because I was behind that locked door at [Counseling and Psychological Services], traffic was nonexistent. That was not an option at all.”

Wilkerson’s job includes two main components: education and outreach. The two sides, she said, are equally important and complement each other.

“Outreach is important, first and foremost, so that people know that we're here, that there is help here on campus,” she said. “It also may not be you personally that is struggling with something, but maybe your roommate or your friend or someone that you know, and you want to learn more about how to support that individual and how you can be as supportive as possible.”

She said education was what was missing from her past job working in a district attorney’s office and is the reason she applied for the position at UNL.

“When this opportunity came up, it really spoke to me because it allowed both for the opportunity to work with students and advocate, as well as work on the education and prevention side,” she said. “And that's not something that I had had before at the district attorney's office, so I was definitely excited about the opportunity to look at the full spectrum and the full picture.”

Part of education is clarifying the differences between what CARE does and what UNL’s Title IX Office does. Wilkerson said CARE’s biggest function is to be a confidential and supportive resource.

“Our role is not to investigate. Our role is not to make determinations or be a fact finder, if you will,” she said. “Our role is to listen, to believe, to empower and to provide resources and help in navigating things.”

On the other hand, Wilkerson said the Title IX office has a neutral, fact-finding mission, which requires asking the survivor investigative questions about the incident.

Though the two offices have different responsibilities, they often end up working together. Title IX Coordinator Tami Strickman said complainants are offered the opportunity of having a victim advocate join them in the room when they speak to Title IX about an incident.

“Towards the end of the investigation, they almost always have either an advocate or a support person in,” Strickman said. “When people are upset, I always give them the option of me stepping out … especially if they've got a friend or a roommate here, they may want to just talk to that person.”

Outside of the official investigation, Wilkerson and her team offer support in many other ways. She said success for UCARE can mean helping students find resources, empowering them to make choices or having them return to the office for another session, but it looks different for everyone.

“I think a lot of people look at success like win/ loss, and that's not this, that's not what we do,” she said. “We are looking more at the bigger picture; at the practice, if you will, and not the destination.”

Wilkerson is patient. She understands the time it takes to build trust within a community and said she puts an emphasis on being present so people can get to know her, regardless if they need her services.

“I think the biggest thing is I meet people where they're at,” she said. “If where you're at is coffee and getting to know me and getting comfortable with me, then let's do that. If where you're at is crisis, and you want to come in and be in this space with me, that's okay, too. I think the biggest thing is being present, being honest about what my role is and allowing people to come where they're at and meeting them there.”

Editors’ Note: If you or someone you know has had an experience with the Title IX office you’d like to share with The Daily Nebraskan, please email investigations@dailynebraskan.com.

This article is part of a Title IX series. Click here for a table of contents.