Education and mentoring support work to help others build new lives.
Alisa Bernard was a teenage runaway and a child sex-abuse survivor when she turned to prostitution at age 18. She was one of many young women who posted their services on a website, where they thought potentially dangerous clients would be screened out by the service. But Bernard was raped multiple times, strangled and held against her will during the four years she was a prostituted woman.
In 2014 Bernard enrolled in Eastern Washington University’s Psychology program, one of five degree paths offered at Eastern at Bellevue College, located in Bellevue. Her studies enabled her to changed not only her own life, but the lives of others.
“I was a high school dropout and went back to school in my 20s because I felt obligated to finish up my associate degree,” Bernard says. “Going back to get my bachelor’s degree at age 32 was a pretty big deal for me. I knew I needed a B.A. to advance to the next career level. What I quickly learned was how useful psychology could be in helping other survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.”
Today, Bernard works as the Survivor Advocacy Coordinator for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors. She has done numerous jobs in this organization, including developing a 12-week survivor mentoring program.
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Key to success: Community support
Taking on the rigors of college was hard enough, but Bernard also was struggling with challenges in her personal life and career. She was in the middle of a divorce, and didn’t have a full-time job. The student community and teachers at the EWU program offered her the support she needed.
“The friends I met at EWU could not have been more encouraging,” Alisa says. “I was also highly motivated. When you’re older, you have the unique advantage of having life experiences to help you put the pieces of what you’re learning in class together.”
The professors in Alisa’s program were helpful in the classroom and giving advice. Professor Islam-Zwart was a role model for what it looks like to do your job right and to do it well at a school,” Bernard says. “Professor Seiver was the kind of professor who makes every student feel at home in the classroom. She creates an environment where her students felt free to ask questions and she went out of her way to make sure we actually understand the answers.”
Psychology degree leads to new life
Bernard’s experience in the EWU Psychology program has given her a variety of tools to help further her career – from the writing skills to author grants, to role models for effective teaching, to the confidence to speak publicly about the complex issues involved with advocacy work for prostitution survivors.
“My degree has played a major role in my ability to develop an effective and engaging program for women who have experienced severe trauma and abuse,” Bernard says. “Most importantly, it taught me how to think about this issue and communicate the importance to others.”
Eastern Washington University and Bellevue College have had a partnership for more than 10 years. Eastern at Bellevue College is on the BC campus, offering upper-division level courses that lead to five EWU bachelor’s degrees.