Rendas’ Work While U.Va. Students Changing Lives

Emily and Susan Renda stand next to each other smiling at the camera

Emily and Susan Renda will walk the Lawn together Sunday as fellow members of the class of 2014.

The Rendas’ love affair with the University of Virginia has been playing out for more than three decades.

It started in 1976, when Susan Malecki met fellow student Tom Renda. They married at the University Chapel a year after graduating from U.Va. in 1980, Malecki from the School of Nursing and Renda from the College of Arts & Sciences. After Tom added a degree from the School of Law in 1984, they moved to Baltimore, where they established careers and raised two daughters: Karen, who graduated from the College in 2006 and the Curry School of Education in 2007, and Emily, who graduates Sunday – alongside Susan, who’ll be making her second trip down the Lawn.

“When I considered pursuing my doctorate and found out U.Va.’s executive-style Doctorate of Nursing Practice program could be done while working full-time and be completed in three years, I was sold,” said Susan, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and is a nurse practitioner and program coordinator at the university’s Diabetes Center. When she did the math, she realized she had to ask her daughter if it would be OK if they ended up graduating together. Emily’s reply: “That would be so cool!” 

That sentiment has proven to be true for both women, “even [during] the down turns,” Emily shared in an email.

Susan’s studies have led to improvements in diabetes education for patients in the U.S. and abroad.

Emily’s experiences and research landed her an internship with U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan this year and an invitation to participate in the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. They have also shaped the direction that her graduate studies and life’s work will take.

From Survivor to Passionate Advocate

Emily Renda entered U.Va. intending to major in the interdisciplinary Environmental Thought & Practice program, because, in her own words, she was “very interested in dirt and soil.” But when she was sexually assaulted during her first semester at U.Va., “a lot of my dreams and goals got railroaded by the immediate need to figure out what to do,” she said.  

With the support of her family, friends and University community members, including staff at the U.Va. Women’s Center, Renda turned her assault into an opportunity to help others. “I can’t change what happened, but I can hopefully change it for someone else,” she said.

Not only did Emily’s academic plans change, so did her involvement at U.Va. She became a distinguished major in sociology; began interning for the Women’s Center; joined the Sexual Assault Facts and Education organization (since renamed One Less) and was elected president; became involved with Take Back the Night, an annual national program in which U.Va. participates that aims to end all types of sexual violence; chaired the Sexual Assault Leadership Council; and served on the Inter-Sorority Council as Women’s Concerns Chair.

Emily’s experiences over her first three years prepared her to discuss sexual assault in a broader context, and her involvement with February’s national Dialogue at U.Va.: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students, which convened higher education voices from around the nation to discuss sexual misconduct at the college level, led to her being invited to the White House listening session.

At the U.Va.-hosted national conference, Emily participated in a student panel. She talked “about sexual assault as an issue that is pervasive on college campuses, but doesn’t have a clear answer,” she said.

“It was a room full of people who didn’t know the answer, but at least had methods. I’m so proud to have gone to the school that was the first one to hold a conference like this.”

Following the conference, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault invited Emily to take part in one of a series of “listening sessions” that same month on ways that educators, researchers and survivors can inform the federal response to campus rape and sexual assault.

In April, the task force released its initial report, to which Emily contributed. According to “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault,” one in five women experience sexual violence as students, 75 percent to 80 percent of whom know their attacker. Most don’t report it.

Emily’s White House invitation came by way of Claire Kaplan, the Women’s Center’s director of sexual assault and domestic violence services, who recommended her to the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, which shared the information with its Campus Task Force, “and the rest is history,” Kaplan wrote in an email.

Emily initially believed that the invitation would simply allow her to listen to the discussion. Once she realized that she would be speaking as a member of the sexual assault prevention community, she recognized the opportunity at hand.

“I reached out to everyone almost immediately to figure out how to represent myself and these interests,” she said.

When Emily arrived at the White House on Feb. 21 for the session, she learned that her distinguished major thesis had caught the interest of Lynn Rosenthal, White House adviser on violence against women.

Emily had sent her research to Rosenthal prior to the listening session. The thesis focuses on the fundamental conflict between due process and Title IX, a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, with an analysis of how to make a sexual misconduct policy as strong as possible to encourage the highest number of reports based on the conflict. Rosenthal shared Emily’s work with the task force.

“When I ended up at the roundtable discussion, most of what my perspective called on was based on my research, which comes out of my own experiences to begin with,” Emily said. “It was an interesting twist, to say the least.”

The roundtable discussion included members of the task force, representatives of government departments and agencies; Kathleen Sebelius, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services; and Emily’s advocacy peers.

While Emily acknowledges the broad range of student perspectives engaged in the discussion, she considers herself to hold an alternative viewpoint to many of the traditional advocacy voices.

“I think I’m in kind of an odd position. I’m not your typical survivor advocate. I’m less grassroots and more higher education-focused,” she said.

Emily’s ongoing research also drew attention during the discussion. She is currently working on a climate survey that provides a de-gendered instrument to measure rape attitude, perpetration and victimizations. “A lot of the old methods assume victims are women and perpetrators are male, which we know to not be true, so I have [created] this de-gendered instrument,” she said.

The instrument struck the interest of the U.S Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, which hopes to replicate the research on a larger scale. While it is unlikely that the office will use the exact instrument Emily developed, it will either conduct its own research to create a similar instrument or give schools the instrument to further develop for their use.

“It’s nice to be a 21-year-old kid with a little bit of experience telling someone how you did what you did,” Emily said.

The task force’s existence and its engaged dialogue with students are signs that sexual assault advocacy is moving in a positive direction, she said.

“If we start early to get people to think in a healthy, constructive way about their sexuality and relationship expectations, there would be so much less shame and stigma when someone is assaulted at a college level,” Emily said.

Emily plans to continue her advocacy after graduation. She will enter a dual-degree program run by Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health and the University of Maryland’s School of Law and concentrate on women’s leadership and equality and gender in the law.

“I’m looking forward to not just focusing on the adjudication side and the legal implications, but also maintaining the level of public health research and prevention-type work that I’ve also enjoyed,” she said. “I like to think of it as getting on either side of the issue and smashing it. You can’t do it from one side. You have to push it from both.”

Her ultimate goal is “to work in any of a few different areas – higher ed Title IX coordination, civil discrimination litigation or criminal code reform around gender-based violence. I’m just excited to see where the possibilities lead.”

Embrace Education at Every Age

Susan Renda, with more than 26 years of experience as a nurse practitioner and professor, said her return to graduate school was stirred by her 30th reunion at U.Va. There she met a former Nursing School classmate who’d earned her doctoral degree.

“Do I want to get a different view on nursing?” Susan recalled asking herself. The answer was yes.

“It was nice to come to U.Va. for a perspective outside my setting at JHU,” Susan said. “The courses were excellent, the teachers were excellent, my fellow [Doctor of Nursing Practice] students were amazing and the director of the program, Dorothy Tullmann, was very responsive to the learning needs of the students. My committee chair, Marianne Baernholdt, has wisdom and insight into how to successfully guide a project and find meaningful clinical implications to improve peoples’ health,” she said.

Her U.Va. capstone project increased diabetes education to employees at a large medical institution, she said. And though her role as nurse practitioner and professor will continue, she expects to use her new knowledge in her teaching and with initiatives now and as they arise in the future.

‘Happy Accident’ and ‘Fun Bond’

The commuter mom said she enjoyed going to school with Emily.

“I got to come to Charlottesville for classes and meetings about once a month, stayed with some dear friends of mine from my undergrad years and caught up to Emily and her friends,” she said. “When Emily came home to Maryland, we would grab our computers and head off to a coffee shop for some Wi-Fi and to be study buddies. We would watch ‘Friday Bride Day’ and [Law & Order’s] ‘SVU’ for a needed study break. I know more than a few times, Emily gave me encouragement to keep going on a literature review or paper – ‘you can do it, Mom.’ … I exercised at the gym where she worked, and stood on the student hill for football games with her friends while I watched ‘The Adventures of Cav Man.’ How many moms get to sing the ‘Good Ol’ Song’ and do cheers with their daughter?

“We are quite a U.Va. family, and that makes me happy,” Susan said. “Our educations at U.Va. were different from each other, giving each of us a unique experience, but we all love U.Va., and it creates such a fun bond.” 

The U.Va. highlights for Emily are many, and include people as well as the place.

“I could go on all day with shout-outs to incredible people, but there are a few: To Alison Pugh, a fantastic adviser; to Dean Nicole Eramo, an incredible mentor; to Victoria Olwell for my first introduction to feminist thought; to Claire Kaplan for fulfilling years with the Women’s Center.

“It’s all seemed so wonderful, even the downturns or speed bumps,” she said. “I’ve loved going to the White House ... [and] late nights at the Virginian. I’ve loved streaking the Lawn, the way Alderman stacks smells like musty books. I’ve loved my incredible friendships and the opportunity to work with so many people at so many levels – student or administrator. I’ve loved discovering the hiking around Charlottesville, the late-night drives with friends, sitting in professor’s offices, finishing my thesis in the fall instead of the summer.

“It was the happiest of accidents that mom’s career path and my time in college happened to line up,” she said.

That’s what will happen again Sunday, when the two line up to process the Lawn together, then attend each other’s diploma ceremonies.

Media Contact

Rebecca P. Arrington

Office of University Communications