There’s a good chance that third-year Sabrina Hughes would not be the social justice warrior she is today if she hadn’t spent so much time online as a teenager.
“I was like a total internet kid in high school, and didn’t really have many friends,” said Hughes. “I did a lot of self education that way.”
Growing up in the small Orange County community of Mission Viejo, Hughes attended a school where social justice “was never an issue that was brought to the forefront or talked about.” It wasn’t until she began to frequent Tumblr — the famously forward-thinking blogging website — that she became aware of the feminist movement and began to learn more about rape culture, the objectification of women and sexual assault. Shocked by the fact that these topics weren’t being adequately addressed at her school, Hughes began to seek out information for herself. Soon, she was swapping links and opinions with her best friend Cathy in an attempt to suss out these complex issues.
“We created our own open dialogue about it,” said Hughes. “Because there wasn’t really any kind of platform to have those conversations.”
Now, 20-year-old Hughes, a UCI film and media studies major, has discovered a more tangible outlet for her passions. As the co-chair of the 2015 Take Back the Night organizing committee, she has spent her year working with students and faculty from the Campus Assault Resources & Education (CARE) office to plan one of UCI’s most talked-about events. Hughes attended her first Take Back the Night during her freshman year, when a sorority sister involved with the CARE office encouraged her and several other members of Tri Delta to come out and volunteer. She signed up to work just a few hours at a raffle booth, but wound up staying until the very end of the late-night Speak Out, in which survivors of sexual assault are invited to take up the mic to tell their own stories.
“I just thought the whole thing was really powerful,” said Hughes. “People were literally taking back the night. They had gone through these experiences that were so traumatic, and they (were) able to just stay strong and to get back up to reclaim their lives. To not let this experience define them, but also to take it in as a part of their life and to be active in the community.”
Realizing that so many people in her real life had been through these experiences was incredibly eye-opening for Hughes.
“You walk around campus and you meet people and never know what their story is,” said Hughes, “and people were walking up to the mic that I recognized. You just have no idea what kind of trauma that they’ve been through.”
This “transformative” experience inspired her to enroll in the CARE office’s Right to Know program during her sophomore year. The year-long program offers students the chance to not only become more educated about sexual assault themselves, but to become peer educators, creating workshops to be delivered on campus and throughout Orange County. As they worked together to learn and teach, Hughes and her fellow Right to Know activists became fast friends and she felt lucky to get to work with students who both challenged and encouraged her.
“Obviously I had my passions, but I had never really met people that were as passionate about preventing sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and all that kind of stuff,” said Hughes. “It was just so inspiring for me and so motivating for me to see other people motivated about it.”
As the program wrapped up at the end of her sophomore year, Hughes realized that this experience had made her feel better than almost anything she had done before.
“By the end of my second year, through all the education and just being able to assist with the events that the CARE office puts on and all the friends I made in the peer education group,” said Hughes. “I realized that this is the kind of work I want to dedicate my life to.”
This year, Hughes’ focus was on Take Back the Night, since her fall study abroad in Scotland prevented her from committing to the year-long Right to Know program again. After weeks of meticulous coordinating, planning and fundraising, Hughes and her committee were able to pull off one of the smoothest and most successful Take Back the Night events to date, drawing in a crowd of around 700 students. “I’ve just grown so much, and come into myself,” she says. “(I’ve) developed so much as a leader, and done so much more than I thought I’d be able to.”
Hughes doesn’t know what she wants to do after she graduates, exactly, but she still has a year to decide. One thing she does know for sure is that she’d like to continue working in preventative education. She hopes more than anything that she can continue helping college students in a program like the one she has dedicated the past several years of her life to.
“The feeling I get when I go to a Take Back the Night meeting and the feeling I get after a workshop with Right to Know, I want that feeling to be recreated throughout my whole life,” said Hughes. “I would be the happiest little clam in the world.”