Student Story

Celebrating a Safe Space for Survivors with the Peer Education and Support Group Betsy’s Friends

Julia Wilen ’24

“Don’t be afraid to explore things that are entirely new. Simmons and Boston have so much to offer.”

Julia Wilen ’24 began her work supporting survivors of violence before she came to Simmons.

“I was involved in violence prevention work in high school,” says Wilen, who grew up in New York and volunteered for the Center for Safety and Change, a local domestic violence shelter that offered a support hotline and legal resources for survivors of domestic violence.

During high school, Wilen was involved in Student Activists Ending Dating Abuse (SAEDA), a program for high school students. “The [program’s approach] stemmed from the belief that all violence comes from power imbalances in our society,” says Wilen. “To counteract those imbalances, we learned about different forms of oppression, how they contributed to dating violence, and what we could do to combat that.”

Getting Involved Right From the Start

In her application to Simmons, Wilen drew on these experiences. “There was a question on the application about what groups we would want to be involved in on campus,” she recalls. “I wrote about Betsy’s Friends.”

Betsy's Friends is a Peer Education Program named after Elizabeth 'Betsy' McCandless '71, who lost her life to domestic violence in 1991. In response to her death, Betsy’s classmates and Simmons staff members created the Betsy McCandless Memorial Fund and launched University-wide initiatives to educate the Simmons community about intimate partner violence.

“Betsy’s Friends is a peer education and support program for students. It exists to make our campus more trauma-informed and survivor-centered,” says Wilen. “We provide general information about survivorship and relationships, including education regarding consent, safe sex, and healthy relationships.” The program is still funded by the Memorial Fund, and has grown and developed over the years, offering peer support hours every week, in addition to weekly community meetings and larger events every semester.

“I’m grateful that these issues [e.g., domestic violence, consent, safe sex] have seeped into our cultural understanding in a way that it hadn’t when the group was founded,” notes Wilen. “For me, [it’s important to] create this safe space for survivors at Simmons, with no expectation that survivors will share their stories. Survivors carry their experiences with them, and it can be comforting to be surrounded by people who understand.”

At the core of their mission is a future free of sexual violence. “It’s been incredible to be a part of this community, and be connected to the lineage of students doing this difficult but important work.” Wilen discovered photos of the early members of the Betsy’s Friends team in Microcosm 1999 (the Simmons yearbook), accessible via the Simmons Digital Archive. “I’ve been lucky to work with amazing people who have since graduated. And it’s wonderful to look back at Simmons history and find people dedicated to having survivor-centered space on campus. I [love feeling] a part of that history.”

In March, Betsy’s Friends held one of their most popular annual events: Safer Sex Bingo. “We use definitions of safer sex terms as bingo phrases. All of our prizes are sex toys, safer sex supplies, and gender-affirming products,” says Wilen. “We’ve made a space to properly educate students about consent and preventing sexual assault, but it’s important also to talk about safer sex and sex positivity [promoting sexuality as a natural and healthy part of life].”

In Alumnae Hall on April 19, Rock Against Rape will feature a benefit concert with local queer and feminist bands. “This is a new event for us, and we have a cool lineup of bands so far,” says Wilen. “There will be snacks and a giveaway, and the proceeds from the event will go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

The Second Annual Celebrating Survivors Dinner will occur on April 25 at 6pm in C-250. This event is curated by Betsy’s Friends, in partnership with the Director of the REEF Support Center, Matoaka Kipp ’16, and Advancement staff. Steve McCandless, Betsy’s brother, will be in attendance. The event is open to all Simmons students, faculty, and staff, as a way to celebrate survivors of violence and to honor Betsy’s legacy.

“I’ve learned how important it is to have balance in order to be a good leader.”

While Wilen exercised a penchant for leadership in high school, her skills have grown and developed while at Simmons. “I’ve learned how important it is to have balance in order to be a good leader,” says Wilen. “I definitely have perfectionistic tendencies. I’ve [learned that] if I put 100% into academics and jobs and relationships, that doesn’t leave much for me to give to myself. Matoaka Kipp has modeled how important it is for it to be okay to not always have the answers, and to take time for myself. Before coming to Simmons, I had this idea that leadership was about being available to everyone, all the time. I’ve learned that you need to be willing to be flexible. Not everything has to happen exactly as you envisioned in order to be successful.”

The Freedom to Explore a Variety of Academic Interests

In addition to finding mentors on campus, Wilen encourages incoming students to explore their academic interests during their studies. “Simmons makes it really easy to take classes in a lot of subjects, even if it isn’t exactly what you’re studying,” she says. “Whether you’re studying nursing or business or want to work in publishing, any of those fields could benefit from a background in Women’s and Gender Studies or Africana Studies.”

For Wilen, college has been a time of growth, due in part to allowing herself to follow her own instincts and interests. “Don’t be afraid to explore things that are entirely new. Simmons and Boston have so much to offer.” This semester, Wilen was able to cross-register in a Ceramics class at Emmanuel College, right next door to Simmons. “It’s so fun! I’ve been really caught up with academics and haven’t had a lot of space to connect with my creativity, so it’s been really nice.”

While still considering the next steps of her career, Wilen plans to continue to work in violence prevention — maybe even as administrator to a program like Betsy’s Friends. “I want to create communities that are inclusive for students who need or want support on campus,” she says. “I’m passionate about this work.”

Publish Date


Alisa M. Libby