Profile: Jessica Schulz, WSU’s first confidential advocate


McKenna Scherer, Editor-in-Chief

To match its thousands of students, Winona State University has hundreds of faculty and staff members and dozens of majors and minors. Yet, the university has never had a full-time advocate or advocacy center, let alone an official staff or faculty member specifically available to students as a sexual violence confidential advocate.
One in four undergraduate women from 33 large United States universities have experienced sexual assault while they were students, according to a survey done by the Association of American Universities that surveyed more than 181,000 students in the spring of 2018. Fewer than 30% of those women filed a report or sought help or counseling from their schools. Many of them were either too embarrassed or ashamed, felt what they had experienced was “not serious enough,” or believed they could handle it alone.
In Winona State’s own campus climate survey in 2017, which collected formation anonymously from students on their experience with gender-based violence incidents, including sexual assault and harassment, roughly 17% of the 1,300 participants said they had been coerced into unwanted sexual contact.
Another 25% of those participating students said they had experienced attempted coercion into unwanted sexual contact.
Two students said the person who had committed the unwanted behavior was affiliated with the university. 14 students were not sure if the person had been affiliated with the university.
Specifically on campus, 54 students said they had experienced gender-based violence while in university housing.
Due to lack of funding, the effects of COVID-19 on schooling across the country–and world– and various other factors, Winona State did not continue the gender-based violence surveys.
Now experiencing a sliver of “normalcy” this fall, Winona State is offering more than 50% of its courses in-person and has already begun in-person events and activities on campus for students.
While September is widely recognized in the U.S. as back-to-school month, it is also National Campus Safety Month. Specifically, it highlights the issue of college campus sexual violence.
Fitting, then, that Winona State has now hired a full-time confidential advocate. The advocate is housed in the Office of Equity & Inclusive Excellence; the position’s job load is housed by Dr. Jessica Schulz.
Due to COVID-19, Schulz’s entire interview process was done virtually, and she had not seen Winona State’s campus in-person before accepting the position.
Although originally from California, she has had years of schooling in the Midwest. After earning her bachelor’s degree in women’s studies from Fresno State University in 2009 and working for a domestic violence non-profit, she then worked at Fresno State from 2014 to 2017 as coordinator of their gender and LGBTQ+ programming. The position included being the campus advocate and conducting gender-based violence education programming. After her time there, she started working towards her master’s degree at Iowa State University, which she earned in the spring of 2021.
“I was kind of looking at both faculty positions and Student Affairs positions that focused on advocacy and education, and I was just right in Iowa, so I drove up [to Winona], kind of looked around and was like, “there’s water here. There’s no water in Iowa,” Schulz said, laughing. “So, I was super excited when I got the offer to come up here and explore.”
Now, her new office is quietly set inside four, newly built white walls, slowly being decorated with artwork and her bookshelf flush against one wall. Schulz said she wants to focus on cultivating trust between herself and students, faculty and staff during her first semester at Winona State.
“I definitely want to be respectful of the work that has already been done,” Schulz said. “Students have done so much work prepping the landscape for this position. It’s a lot different to come to a campus that has never talked about these kinds of things, but you can tell–or, I can tell–that especially students here have really been involved in educating faculty and staff.”
Schulz has not done much exploring in Winona since moving to the county this past May as she acknowledges the pandemic is very much ongoing, affecting her job as well.
“This first semester is challenging because, again, we’re still in a pandemic, half in, half out. My position relies so much on trust that you have to build relationships in order for that to happen,” Schulz said. “So, nobody’s going to come and see me, because one: there has been, as there is on all college campuses, harm caused by institutions. So, students are hesitant to trust. Until I can have folks believe [they can trust me], it’s going to be slow-going. That’s just relationship building.”
In between relationship building activities like introducing herself to freshman orientation classes and the counselors in Health Services at the university and working on presentations to promote conversation around gender-based violence awareness, Schulz has managed to find a few of her own safe spaces in Winona.
Schulz volunteers with the local Humane Society, citing her love of cats and dogs, which was further proven when she adopted two cats after moving to Winona (in self-proclaimed-nerd fashion, her cats are named after “Game of Thrones” and “300” characters).
She has also found comfort in a Winona-favorite: Blooming Grounds café.
“Their food has been really delicious,” Schulz said, a smile decorating her face.
“I don’t really go out much or go to large group areas. We’re still in a pandemic, so I am pretty cautious still. I probably haven’t explored as much as I could–but it’s intentional,” she explained.
Although limiting her time in public spaces, she has a strong passion for the work she does, which keeps her days busy.
“I think I just love the combination of education and anti-violence. They can’t be separated because if I want [violence and gender-based violence] to end, the only way we can do that is by teaching people how to live without it and how to not act on it.”
Schulz had her jean-clad ankles crossed; black Old Skool-style Vans laced up on her feet when she explained her own journey at the age most are when graduating high school and heading off to start careers, college or not.
“I did not finish high school because I was addicted to drugs and I went to rehab. I got out and I got clean. I was 17 or 16 and I took what’s kind of like a GED but for people who are under 18, so I actually tested out and graduated in 1998,” Schulz said. “Then I just kind of went on from there.”
Schulz has a bright smile, the kind that lights up her whole face, and a sense of humor paired with rimmed glasses that likely helped foster her 18-year-old son’s joking that she’s a “nerd.” When the smile drops during her sharing of her education as a teenager, it is replaced with a strong sincerity.
“I never got support in high school. I think it was because I didn’t want people to tell me what to do, so I just did whatever I wanted and that’s how I got into drugs and alcohol. I learned everything the hard way,” Schulz said. “[But] it’s never too late to redirect.”
Schulz had her son in 2003 and afterwards, realized she wanted to go to college. It took her six years to earn her bachelor’s degree and fall in “love” with education, inspiring her to earn her master’s degree in higher education.
Schulz said she believes it is important to talk about “the things that we don’t talk about as a society,” like drug and alcohol use and sexual violence.
“It’s why I dress the way I do. People think you have to look a certain way to be in leadership and you don’t,” Schulz said. “Anybody can do this.”