Alumnae/i Feature

Nathan Brewer ’10MSW ’18PhD on Protecting College Students

Nathan Brewer ’10MSW ’18PhD

“In the MSW program, I learned how to do my job as a clinician... In the PhD program, I learned how to think as a director: how do I support my staff?”

Nathan Brewer ’10MSW ’18PhD is Director of the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center (SARP) at Boston University (BU). After receiving his Master’s in Social Work from Simmons, he returned to the University to pursue his PhD in Social Work alongside his clinical practice. We spoke to Brewer about his experience in the program, and his current work at Boston University.

“I was really happy with my Master’s experience at Simmons. I knew many of the faculty in the PhD in Social Work program and wanted more time to learn from them,” says Nathan Brewer ’10MSW ’18PhD. “The program is structured in such a way that it allowed me to stay active as a clinical social worker. Also, Professor and PhD Program Director Kristie Thomas is an expert in domestic violence, which is my area of research. She had just finished a research project focused on LGBTQ survivors.”

That research focus eventually led Brewer to his current position, Director of the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention (SARP) Center at Boston University. SARP was formed 11 years ago for prevention and response work, and now has a team of nine professional staff and 25 student staffers.

Preventing Violence on Campus

“We follow a public health model of prevention, offering training and educational programs throughout the year that support survivors and cultivate healing,” says Brewer. “On the clinical side, we have a victim services approach, which includes a crisis line, as well as assistance in placing restraining orders, accompanying victims to police interviews and court hearings, and safety planning. We also have individual counseling, specialized counseling for PTSD, and support groups for trauma survivors.” This year, SARP is implementing a new training program for clinical interns. “Second year MSW students, from Simmons and BU, work with the team to learn the skills needed to work with survivors of violence.”

Given the ubiquity of violence on college campuses, a broad approach to addressing the issue is necessary. “We assist the University in providing an online preventative training to all incoming students, faculty, and staff. First and second-year students receive training that covers sexual assault, harassment, dating violence, and stalking. We also provide specialist groups with additional training, and varsity athletes take yearly training sessions with peer or ‘near peer’ facilitators — undergraduate and graduate students, respectively.”

Brewer also sits on University-wide committees with the intent of expanding what prevention looks like at BU. “In the prevention world, we talk about individual and group-focused training,” says Brewer. “Individual training includes how to intervene if someone thinks a sexual assault is about to happen. We’re shifting to broaden our training to group level, so that people will think about their group as a whole. Leaders of student groups can build positive social norms to prevent violence within their group, and skill-based training encourages them to think about [the safety of] their group as a whole.”

SARP is less invested in risk reduction training, as these often inadvertently reinforce victim-blaming by putting all of the onus on the individual. “But we provide things like self-defense courses if the students request it. We need to meet them where they are.” SARP collaborates with a local organization that provides feminist-informed self-defense instruction. “It’s still risk reduction, but done in a way that is trauma-sensitive and avoids reinforcement of rape myths.”

While the prevention programs are available for every population, they can be tailored to specific groups. “We’ve done individual outreach and specialized training for certain groups, by request, including training about intimate partner violence for LGBTQ groups,” says Brewer. “We try to be sensitive to the community’s needs as they come up, creating interventions to address the moment we’re in.”

Supporting Students Through Trauma

Though the department title focuses on sexual assault, Brewer says they support students in the aftermath of any traumatic event that happens during their time at BU. “If there is a student death or a crisis on campus, we are a part of that response.” In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, Black student leaders were seeking help from SARP. “These students were experiencing a trauma reaction. We formed a support group for those folks, asked them what they needed, and developed a new intervention.”

More recently, online scams are on SARP’s radar. “There are online scams targeting Chinese students studying at BU. These are sophisticated scams, so we’ve offered prevention programs to our Chinese student groups, to make them aware of things targeting that population.” Another recent phenomenon, “sextortion,” has ensnared an increasing number of male graduate and international students. “Scammers pose as an interested romantic connection, soliciting explicit images or videos of the victim, then blackmail them, threatening to release the images to the University if they don’t send money. There are new and novel ways that trauma can impact our students.”

Since his PhD studies at Simmons, Brewer transitioned from being a front-line counselor to taking over the SARP Center from its founding director (and former Simmons School of Social Work Adjunct Faculty) Maureen Mahoney ’90MSW. “The skills I gained from the PhD have been invaluable in moving into the director role,” says Brewer. “We studied data collection, program evaluation, impact policy at university level and advocacy at a national level. These subjects were addressed in the MSW program, but were explored in depth during the PhD program.”

Researching Survivor’s Needs

Brewer is currently in the midst of a climate survey on sexual misconduct on campus; his studies prepared him to know what questions to ask, and how to make sure the group has a representative sample of LGBTQ students, international students, and other minority groups. “I learned all of that in the PhD program,” says Brewer, noting that a survey of this magnitude required administrative support. “I’ve done large data analysis and could advocate what was best to understand the needs of survivors on campus. A lot of program evaluation is also about understanding how to collect and use data to improve our services.”

Connections made through the PhD program have opened doors for collaborative research on a national level. “Research on college based victim services is pretty new. We are benchmarking prevention and response services at 155 universities across the U.S., exploring the services offered and the funding. It’s the first real research on what is being offered.” Brewer is also working with colleagues at UT Austin, doing a quasi-experimental study of the effectiveness of victim support in university settings. “I will be on the advisory board for that research project, and none of it would have been possible without connections and experience I gained from the Simmons PhD program.”

Advice for PhD Students

Brewer advises PhD students to have patience with themselves. “I’m so happy I chose to do the PhD while working, because the work dramatically informed the research I was doing. My dissertation came from the clinical room in SARP,” he says. “That said, learning and working at the same time is exceedingly difficult. Be patient with yourself.” For his part, Brewer found ways to strategically use his time, by doing much of his research during the summer when he was not taking courses. “I also recommend that you use each of your courses and assignments as stepping stones toward your dissertation and research agenda.” For example, a literature review of a particular topic may work for a journal article, which could also contribute to the preparation for a future dissertation. And don’t forget to reach out to others for support. “I am a first-generation college student,” says Brewer. “There are unwritten rules [in academia], and you don’t know what you don’t know. Stay in contact with peers and mentors.” Professor Kristie Thomas, also a first-generation college student, was an essential guide. “She understood my experience. [Without her perspective], I may not have made it through the program. She understood what it’s like when [navigating academia] is not second nature.”

Stress management is vital to all students, but Brewer offers a different approach. “We focus too much on what individual people do for self-care,” he says. “I have a dog I love to hang out with, I love to travel and spend time outside, but the more nuanced answer is about how to do the work in a sustainable way.”

When SARP was founded, the first director used a trauma-informed structure for students and employees, which Brewer is attempting to replicate. “We have more supervision and team work than most counseling centers. We meet frequently, limit how many clinical hours we each do in a week, protect lunch hours and administrative time.” They use the PCAR guide to Trauma-Informed Supervision, which includes the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale. “We are constantly monitoring for symptoms of trauma in ourselves and others, in order to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue. When we talk about self-care, we need to get away from talking about bubble baths and instead ask, do the [clinicians] have enough time off? Do they have enough time to respond to students?”

Brewer connects all of this back to what he gained from Simmons. “In the MSW program, I learned how to do my job as a clinician,” he says. “In the PhD program, I learned how to think as a director: how do I support my staff?”

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Alisa Libby