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Fighting for Survivors: Human Services Senior turns trauma into strength

Hannah Waterman, human services graduate

Hannah Waterman was only in her first year of high school when she noticed the man in the subway station. She tried to ignore him, to get him to go away, but he followed her. First onto the train, then into the seat next to her. That’s where he sexually assaulted her.

She froze, panicked. There were people around, but no one seemed to recognize what was happening to her. A few stops later, he left. Heaving sobs poured out of her as she tried to grasp what had just happened. Still, the other people on the train did nothing.

It was traumatic, a life-changing experience, but with a lot of hard work, Hannah is owning that experience — taking something horrific and turning it into something good, a source of power. She’s uniquely qualified to understand what it’s like to be a victim. It’s why she’s studying Human Services at York College of Pennsylvania: to become a victim’s advocate. “I want to be what I needed in that moment for someone else,” she says.

Helping people

Hannah is a senior in York College’s Human Services program, but when she came in as a first-year student, she was studying Elementary Education. In between, she tried out International Relations. “I knew I wanted to work with people and help people,” she says, “I just didn’t know how.”

It took some trial and error before she finally found her calling in Human Services. One class in particular, Victim and Survivor Advocacy, sealed the deal. The class partners with the YWCA, with individuals from the agency teaching the course on how to advocate for victims. It was an emotionally challenging course, but Hannah felt like it was an area where she could have a real impact.

“There are situations where people just need someone to fight for them or help them through things,” she says. “That’s just always the person I’ve been.” Having survived her own trauma, she feels like she can relate with the people for whom she’s advocating and understand in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Finding herself

Hannah had never been to therapy or counseling before she attended York College. It just wasn’t something her family did.  She was struggling with anxiety and depression. Knowing that counseling was covered as part of her tuition at York College, she decided to take advantage of the service. It’s been a blessing.

“I’m a big supporter of counseling and therapy,” she says. “I don’t know if I’d still be here at school if I didn’t have the counselors I had.” They helped her process what she’d gone through and counseled her when she needed direction. She was also supported at the Career Center and by her academic advisor as she worked to figure out what she really wanted to do with her education and career.

Advocating for others

Hannah has focused on advocacy, doing a research project on trauma-informed practices in higher education. She looked at how schools could better serve students who were survivors of trauma. She presented her findings at the Mid-Atlantic Human Services Conference and at the 2019 Undergraduate Research Showcase on campus. The response has been encouraging.

“It’s a lot of professors asking what they can do,” Hannah says. They’ve asked how they might implement practices at York College and elsewhere. “It made me feel really good,” she says, “like I was actually doing something important that could change experiences for students on campus.” She’s just starting an internship with a counseling service in York and Lancaster, and she’s considering a job with the YWCA after she graduates.

Wherever she ends up, she sees herself advocating for victims.  She survived trauma, and she’s going to fight to help other survivors, too.