Chelsea Cleary landed what she considered the perfect position for her at Virginia Tech through a combination of good timing, a little luck, and the resourcefulness of a woman whom Cleary considers an aunt.
The aunt was visiting her twin sister in Blacksburg earlier this winter when she saw the university's advertisement for a sexual assault prevention specialist. She immediately thought of Cleary.
“We had just finished up writing a cover letter that I was going to be sending out to another university for a very similar job,” Cleary said. “So my auntie sent me a screenshot of the job description here and said, 'We literally just wrote the job description. We just wrote the cover letter. You have the qualities to be here, and you need to get down here.'”
Cleary landed the position and in early February started in her new role. She is the first sexual assault prevention specialist at Virginia Tech and is another important piece of the university’s ongoing efforts to address sexual violence within the campus community.
In November, President Tim Sands established the Sexual Violence Culture and Climate Work Group to develop a framework for “cultural transformation” at Virginia Tech. He tasked the group with not only looking at ways to address sexual violence but also the underpinnings that allow sexual violence to occur.
The group consists of 26 members from various departments throughout the university and student representatives, and it works alongside more than 100 student volunteers. After meeting regularly since November, the group unveiled its initial steps last month.


Head shot of Chelsea Cleary
Chelsea Cleary has held several positions in the health care field, mostly in a variety of victim services roles such as a rape crisis counselor, victim advocate, and interpersonal violence prevention trainer. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Cleary.

Now, with the hiring of Cleary, university officials have dedicated to the effort a paid employee who brings to campus outside expertise on sexual violence.
“I think this is a really good step,” said Carolina Bell, president of the United Feminist Movement, a group of Virginia Tech students dedicated to bringing awareness to sexual violence on campus. “I know our sexual assault prevention programming has previously been limited to the [Virginia Tech] Women’s Center. I think it’s really good to be expanding these efforts outside of the Women’s Center and to be reaching more students.”
The daughter of a mother who worked in child protective services for Broome County, New York, Cleary brings a lot of knowledge about gender-based violence. As an undergraduate at SUNY Oneonta, where she earned degrees in psychology and philosophy, she volunteered with gender-based violence prevention groups, and later worked with the Broome County Crime Victims Assistance Center. While there, she became a certified rape crisis counselor.
Cleary also held several different positions in the health care field, mostly in victim services roles such as a rape crisis counselor, victim advocate, and interpersonal violence prevention trainer. She later earned her master’s degree in sustainable communities from Binghamton University, where she concentrated her research on neighborhood environments, affordable housing, and diversity in community land trust leadership teams.
At Virginia Tech, Cleary — who serves on the Sexual Violence Culture and Climate Work Group's Implementation and Culture Change subcommittees — is tasked with developing prevention strategies. She plans to coordinate training opportunities and offer workshops to students, faculty members, and staff.
Specifically, she wants to focus on three key aspects: helping the campus community recognize violence, providing the tools to help people talk about violence when they experience it within their communities, and perhaps most importantly, empowering people to feel confident that they can create change.
“This culture of violence is not just unique to Virginia Tech,” Cleary said. “So many universities struggle with it. It's not something that's just in a silo.
“So when we think about this huge culture of violence, it can feel like, 'Wow, how do I even begin to tackle this?' And it's that, ‘But you can, you're powerful. You have so much that you can do in your particular spaces.' When we make small changes in our spaces that we are in, I promise you it has a ripple effect.”

Cleary’s first steps, though, centered on having conversations with students and faculty members while also taking inventory of Virginia Tech’s resources dedicated to sexual assault prevention. She wants to take those resources and implement them within prevention methods in the most efficient way.
She spent the first month categorizing those resources, and she came away impressed with what Virginia Tech offers.
“I think Virginia Tech has a lot more resources than they realize they do,” Cleary said. “I think that Virginia Tech has all of the pieces here. I think it's really a question of, ‘How do we connect the dots?’ I think that's really the question on a lot of different campuses.”
Cleary understands that the Sexual Violence Culture and Climate Work Group faces an immense challenge to achieve Sands’ ultimate goal of cultural transformation. She recognizes all the variables that need to come together to create change. She feels the frustration of those who want progress to come at a much quicker pace. “Good change, change that we want, is often slow,” she said. “But that’s because it has to be intentional, and we have to think critically and carefully about how we want to implement things.”
Cleary is almost 90 days into her tenure and already is embracing the challenges ahead.
“I saw this position as a wonderful opportunity,” Cleary said. “There's a lot of passion around this issue, and I also share that passion about wanting to make our spaces safer, to make our spaces more inclusive, to make our spaces free of violence, and I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to add to that work.
“So far, it's been really rewarding — and I've only been here for a very short time.”
Those looking for additional resources and information related to sexual violence and harassment may do so by reaching out to any of the following sources:

    •    Women's Center at Virginia Tech: 540-231-7806
    •    Women's Resource Center of the New River Valley: 540-639-1123
    •    Katie Polidoro: Title IX Coordinator: 540-231-1824
    •    Cook Counseling Center: 540-231-6557
    •    Dean of Students Office: 540-231-3787
    •    Virginia Tech Police Department: 540-382-4343


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