Updated Nov. 18, 2013 at 10:45 a.m.
For 14 years, Tara Pereira has been on the front lines of students’ most sensitive conflicts. She’s walked victims through the steps of reporting sexual assaults, searched students’ rooms for drugs and even fended off a drunken attack from a recently expelled student.
But Pereira has now decided to put her family first. After her mother was rushed to the hospital last week and her 5-year-old daughter started kindergarten this fall, Pereira said she will step down next month as GW’s sexual harassment and discrimination coordinator.
“Working with survivors is a very high burnout job,” Pereira said. “I cannot go home at night and not worry about the students that I worry about during the day. That’s just not me.”
Her departure leaves GW without the administrator who helped retool some of the most contentious corners of student life, like the drugs and alcohol disciplinary process, Greek life hazing and the sexual assault policy.
She currently oversees GW’s efforts to prevent and respond to instances of sexual violence, taking on new cases at least once or twice a week. As her work load piles up, she said she’s had to miss too many Girl Scouts and parent-teacher meetings.
“I was at the point where I felt, ‘Either I need to rearrange what this job does or I need to step out,’” Pereira, 39, said. “I just felt that, unless I made a significant decision, I was either going to shortchange GW or shortchange my family. And I’m not comfortable with either of those answers.”
Part of her passion for the job, she said, stems from her experience dealing with her parents’ heroin use and her father’s drinking problem. In her final year overseeing the University’s judicial arm in 2012, Pereira created a support group for students battling addictions to drugs and alcohol.
One of the students in that recovery group, Timothy Rabolt, called Pereira a “guardian angel,” and said the news of her resignation was “shockingly hard to deal with.”
“She always had solutions for the kinds of problems we thought were unsolvable,” said Rabolt, who has worked to overcome a prescription drug addiction. “We’ll be all right, but it won’t be the same.”
Sophomore Maya Weinstein, who has worked with Pereira and knew her well, reaffirmed Pereira’s commitment to students.
“She is one of those people who you can call at 10 o’clock at night and she’ll pick up and then you can’t get her off the phone,” Weinstein said.
Pereira said she’s also dealt with dark moments in the campus judicial process, which she led from 2003 to 2012. About a decade ago, she said a student threatened to stand on top of a building and shoot her as she walked by. A year after Pereira started as a residence hall director, the Sept. 11 attacks shut down the city and she spent 48 hours waiting out the terror with students in Thurston Hall.
Despite the intensity, Pereira said she loved wearing different “hats” during her time at GW, sitting down one-on-one with students and working in the thick of GW’s administrative processes.
‘A steadfast advocate’
Before Pereira took the helm at Student Judicial Services, students were punished if campus police officers found empty liquor bottles used as decorations in their rooms, and hundreds of students were removed from residence halls every year for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Pereira called her revolution of the judicial system a “big point of pride” in her GW career.
“Nobody wants to like a judicial system. I mean, who wants to be punished for things?” Pereira said. “But I felt like we were able to break down some barriers by the way we were repackaging the system.”
But she decided to move on from judicial affairs in 2012, taking on a two-year effort to strengthen GW’s sexual violence codes in line with federal benchmarks.
One of Pereira’s early attempts to reshape the policy came under fire for limiting the amount of time victims had to file formal complaints with the University. Several months later, the University removed the deadline, a move that student leaders lauded.
Matthew Scott, the president of Students Against Sexual Assault, said Pereira was a “steadfast advocate” who brought the student voice into closed-door discussions within the administration.
“She cares about students, first and foremost, and she has proved that every step along the way,” Scott said.
The road to GW and the transition out
Pereira spent both her undergraduate and graduate years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, contemplating a degree in adolescent development. But she started to reconsider after she took a job in the dean of students’ office and watched administrators mentor her peers.
“I had no idea that working with college students was a profession when I was younger,” Pereira said. “And that just changed my entire trajectory.”
Pereira thought she would stay in Massachusetts, where her single mother and tight-knit extended family had always lived. But after a friend encouraged her to interview at GW, she fell in love with the campus and immediately accepted the job offer.
Now, as Pereira wraps up open cases and investigations, she and Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed will transition her workload to someone new. Her last day in the position will be Dec. 13.
Pereira plans to use her expertise in anti-discrimination and sexual assault policies as a consultant to help guide other universities in shaping their policies.
At the same time, she will lead her daughter’s Girl Scouts troop and sit as vice president of her school’s Parent Teacher Association. Her mother, along with her two cats, will leave Boston to move closer to her this winter.
Pereira said she may return once her daughter Sofia, who has grown up on GW’s campus, is older.
Pereira said when she told Sofia she was not going to work at GW anymore, the 5-year-old burst into tears and asked if she could still go to the basketball games.
“But I don’t think I’ll stay away from a college campus forever. I just can’t,” Pereira said. “It’s an emotional experience. That is for sure. I’m really sad about leaving.”