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Aspire! Award recipient works to reduce gender-based violence and volunteers as a firefighter

February 3, 2016

Student firefighter
Not only does Rachel Cotton fight against sexual violence on campus, but she also fights actual fires. Cotton was recently a recipient of the Aspire! Award for courageous leadership. Photo by Beverly Jensen.

It took attending one presentation at one conference for Virginia Tech student Rachel Cotton to decide to take action against gender-based violence.

As a member and leader of the Gamma Phi Beta chapter at Virginia Tech, Cotton of Rockville, Maryland, a senior majoring in sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, attended Gamma Phi Beta's Leadership Academy for chapter presidents in early 2015. There, her eyes were opened to the gender-based and sexual violence that was hitting too close to home. She contacted advisors in Fraternity and Sorority Life who connected her with the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech and Title IX investigators within the Division of Student Affairs.

She immediately began to engage in difficult conversations with her peers within her own organization as well as the Greek community as a whole. Cotton described her motivation best when she said, “I was made aware of an issue that has affected the people I care about and decided to do something about it.”

Cotton approached academic faculty about participating in relevant research regarding sexual and gender-based violence. Her project is geared toward men, taking a proactive approach to sexual assault education by working with fraternity members.

In November of 2015, Cotton was selected as a recipient of the Division of Student AffairsAspire! Award, honoring her courageous leadership.

Her nominator, Katie Mey, gender-based violence prevention coordinator at the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech, said, “Finding someone who is so willing to step up to deal with the difficult topics related to sexual violence so boldly does not happen every day. Bringing these subjects up with peers is not something that typically leads to popularity and accolades. In fact – unfortunately, even on a campus like ours – involvement in these conversations can have the opposite effect. I am confident that Rachel is aware of this stigma, and yet that has never once daunted her desire to speak out and work for change. She continues to push her friends, her organization, our community, and this institution to address the topics of violence with courage.”

Cotton traveled to Vancouver, Canada, in November 2015 to present at the National Council on Family Relations conference on the topic of “Eradicating Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Putting Patriarchy in its Place.”

And, if fighting against sexual violence wasn’t enough, Cotton fights fires, too. 

Since May of 2010, Cotton has volunteered with the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department. She began as a hazardous materials operator, transitioned to a role as an EMT, and, since May of 2011, now serves as a firefighter. She has logged over 4,000 hours with the department and says that she found her voice from growing up in the firehouse.

“I can’t imagine who I would’ve grown up to be if I hadn’t joined the fire department,” said Cotton.

At Virginia Tech, Cotton serves as Panhellenic Affairs vice president for Gamma Phi Beta, is a member of the Phi Alpha Delta professional fraternity, and a member of the National Society for Collegiate Scholars.

Each year, the Division of Student Affairs recognizes 25 students who embody Virginia Tech’sAspirations for Student Learning.

In October, November, February, March, and April, these exceptional students are honored with Aspire! Awards.

Anyone can nominate a student for an Aspire! Aware. Nomination information, along with Aspire! Award dates, can be found online.

Written by Holly Paulette.

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