By Kari Plog '11
PLU Marketing & Communications
TACOMA, WASH. (April 5, 2016)- Miya Higashiyama used to call herself a victim. Eight weeks into her first year of college, the vocal performance major was sexually assaulted at a party off campus. She asked herself what she did to cause it. She wondered how she could have avoided it. She pretended it didn’t happen.
Then, a mental switch went off. Higashiyama said she started treating herself like a survivor instead, taking back the power that she says was initially taken from her. She educated herself while navigating the student conduct process, and encouragement from strong adult figures in her life — two music professors she confided in — changed her outlook.
“To have PLU professors tell me to my face that it wasn’t my fault, that led to a new way of thinking,” said Higashiyama, now a junior at Pacific Lutheran University.
Higashiyama is taking her story to the stage in the Karen Hille Phillips Center for the Performing Arts as part of TEDxTacoma 2016: Healthy Future on April 22 at 7 p.m. She said she wanted to focus on a topic that’s uncomfortable and controversial to make an impact.
“There’s a couple moments that will slap people in the face,” Higashiyama said of her presentation. She stressed the goal isn’t to upset people but rather to light a fire within them. “I want to promote discussion.”
Higashiyama said she knew next to nothing about sexual assault, available resources or the challenges that survivors face before she was assaulted. She said going through the conduct process was difficult. But she learned a lot and the process motivated her to speak out about her experience to help improve resources at college campuses around the country.
“I’m using my story as an illustration of the larger problem,” Higashiyama said, adding that PLU is much better at handling claims of assault than other institutions.
Nationally, one in five women experience sexual assault on college campuses (one in 16 men experience assault during college). Data show that 90 percent of assaults on college campuses go unreported. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a standing effort to raise awareness about the staggering statistics and to end sexual assault altogether.
“I’d like to erase the stigma,” Higashiyama said. “It’s something that nobody wants to talk about.”
The Center for Gender Equity, formerly known as the Women’s Center, offers many resources for survivors and bystanders to educate students, faculty and staff about prevention and support. PLU offers proactive awareness education and additional resources, including the Counseling Center, Health Center and a Victim’s Advocate. Students and organizations at PLU organize events and outreach in April and throughout the year, including Take Back the Night and Stand in Solidarity.
The purpose behind Higashiyama’s advocacy is two-fold.
“Speaking out helps give me back power,” she said, adding that it also helps empower others to open up about their experiences in order to heal as she has. Still, she acknowledges that speaking up isn’t for everyone: “Everyone has their different way of healing.”
Higashiyama said she doesn’t let the assault she experienced define her identity; that’s the difference between being a victim and a survivor, she said. Higashiyama defines her identity in many other ways.
She’s a member of the student advisory board for the School of Arts and Communication, president of Opera Club and has performed nationally and internationally with Choir of the West. She participated in the Joyce DiDonato masterclasses at Carnegie Hall in New York City last year and is a recipient of the Agnes Berge Smith music scholarship.
As for her role as an advocate for sexual assault survivors, Higashiyama connects one-on-one with other survivors, both on PLU’s campus and elsewhere. She said she plans to boost her advocacy in the future, including gaining formal training for advocacy and support.
In the meantime, Higashiyama is more nervous about the delivery of her TEDx talk than the content. She plans to speak with precision, clarity and impact, drawing from her experiences as a dedicated vocalist.
“That’s what performers do, right?” she quipped.