Victim Advocate Melissa Wilkerson poses for a portrait in the University Health Center on Jan. 10, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The realities of domestic violence and sexual assault didn’t sink in for Melissa Wilkerson until she attended college at Emporia State University in Kansas in the early 1990s, when a victim advocate from a local women’s shelter talked to her sociology class and ignited her interest in victim advocacy.

“You see it portrayed on TV, but when you have a person come in and talk to you about it, it’s different,” she said. “ I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is a real thing.’”

Wilkerson, now a full-time victim advocate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, works to offer emotional support and provide resources for victims of crimes like sexual assault. Her office is on the second floor of the University Health Center.

Before serving as UNL’s victim advocate, Wilkerson worked as a victim advocate at a district attorney’s office in Colorado from 2000 to 2014 and in local women’s shelters.

Wilkerson said she took a break from victim advocacy work after leaving the DA’s office. She said she felt her work at the DA office didn’t line up with the victim advocacy work she wanted to do.

“If the [DA] needed a victim to testify, that was the bottom line,” she said. ”It was more about what the DA wanted and not what the victim wanted.”

Wilkerson said the open victim advocacy position at UNL reignited her passion for victim advocacy work, and she knew she needed to apply.

“I’m really happy to be back doing this work that I care so much about,” she said.

Wilkerson said she believes her position at UNL allows her to better advocate for the victims by listening to them, offering resources and having their interests in mind instead of an employer’s.

“I want to make sure someone feels heard and listened to,” she said. 

Wilkerson said she doesn’t find it difficult to connect with victims, despite not having directly experienced domestic violence or sexual assault herself.

“I think, on some level, we all have a connection to domestic violence and sexual assault, whether it’s personally, family members or friends,” she said. “I don’t need to fully relate to them in order to help someone and support them.”

Kara Brant, the associate director of student support and advocacy for UNL Student Affairs, said she believes Wilkerson’s strong communication skills make her a good victim advocate.

“They may need to communicate with many different campus and community agencies in order to support a victim/survivor,” she said. “Melissa has a keen ability to navigate problems and consider the different alternative solutions in order to best help someone.”

Brant said she thinks Wilkerson helps the university in her role as a full-time victim advocate.

“Not only does this greatly expand advocacy availability from previous years,” she said. “But it also provides the opportunity for campus outreach geared toward helping students understand interpersonal violence, how to prevent it and how to help someone who is a victim or survivor.”

Wilkerson said she wants the campus community to know they’re not alone.

“We always see signs up that say, ‘You’re not alone,’ which is true for a lot of people, but your support system may not always be there for you in that way,” she said. “It’s important to know that someone who isn’t personally connected to you is here for you.”