​Celene Lopez needs to stay busy. The fall 2016 semester won't start for another three weeks, but the 21-year-old psychology student is already on campus at Humboldt State University, preparing for the arrival of the freshman class.

"I just can't keep still," she says. "Summer break was never my favorite time of year."

Lopez is a doer, her energy squarely focused at the moment on Check It, a student-led project that aims to reduce violence on campus, especially sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. As the group's peer educator and workshop coordinator today she's planning the annual welcome party for incoming freshmen and working on the speech she'll give about consent.

Consent—the agreement between partners to engage in sexual activity—is a cornerstone of Check It's work. A lot of Lopez's time, in fact, is spent talking to Humboldt students about what consent means and how to "check it," or intervene, when students witness an absence of consent.

In recent years, the national conversation about consent, sexual assault and rape on campuses has grown increasingly urgent. It's estimated that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, a rate that is almost certainly very low since many incidents are never reported.

Programs like Check It play a vital role. By the time Lopez came to the group in April 2014, the environment at Humboldt was ripe for change.

 

Starting the Conversation

Check It was launched in February 2014, when Humboldt State hired a recent alumna, Mary Sue Savage, to start a bystander intervention program. It was to be run and led by students, with the primary goal of creating spaces to talk and learn about ways to prevent violence that work with students' personalities and identities.

Check It began organizing trainings and presentations to teach bystander intervention techniques, such as distract, delegate, and direct forms of intervention, that stop violence before it escalates. (Check It's name is a reference to recognizing "check it moments" in which someone might be in danger and need help.) A vigorous social media and marketing strategy helped spread the word across Humboldt as well.

From the start, the group resonated with many students; Lopez was one of them. Shocked by the stories and statistics she heard at a "Take Back The Night" event on campus, she sought out ways to get involved.

Lopez remembers shaking when she heard what was happening on campus.  "I was so upset and sad and frustrated, and I thought, something needs to be done."

She marked the next Check It event on her calendar.

When Savage met Lopez for the first time, Savage says she was struck by the young woman right away. "You know when you meet someone and they're passionate and excited and you just know they're going to create incredible change in the world?" says Savage. "That was my initial impression of Celene."

It wasn't long before Lopez was logging long hours as a volunteer in the Check It office, promoting events and designing presentations. The first-generation college student credits access to the nascent group for helping her develop a gift for turning ideas and suggestions into action and change.

"[Mary Sue] created this environment that I was able to step into naturally," says Lopez. "I think there's a new understanding of sexual assault [at Humboldt.] [Our] biggest accomplishment has been opening dialogue, having vocabulary for intervention that isn't just the word 'intervention,' and giving people a place to talk about consent."

Savage has seen Lopez's profound empathy in action time and again. "[Celene] wants to create a compassionate world where everyone feels safe, loved and supported, and experiences a life without harm," she says. "That's what's driving her: that no one deserves to be harmed."

 

Finding a Calling

When Lopez left her childhood home in West Covina, California, to attend Humboldt State, some 675 miles away, it was with hopes of becoming a veterinarian.

Animals have always been a comfort to her, helping to ease the anxiety and depression she's lived with since middle school. After her freshman year, Lopez rescued Juno, the tiny emotional support dog who rarely leaves her side.

In finding her talent for caring for two-legged beings as well, Lopez has been transformed. Soon after becoming involved with Check It, she decided to switch her major from wildlife to psychology to better equip her for a career in social justice. She had found her calling.

Today, Lopez is motivated by the thought that her work might shape an environment that can ease suffering. One of the ways she does this is by facilitating group discussions at Humboldt in which survivors of violence can share without fear.

"It is so important to create spaces where people can share their stories," she says. "It allows us as a community to be there to listen, believe, and support them. It can also be really healing for some people and that is beautiful, because everyone's story matters …. [our] core belief [is] that the survivor's choice is always being honored."

In more than two years of working with the group, Lopez has seen a clear transformation in the Humboldt community, too. When she began volunteering with Check It, she and others would often start presentations by asking students to define "consent."

"It was silent," recalls Lopez. That isn't the case anymore, even with incoming freshmen. "Now when we ask, people look at us like we're dumb. [They know that consent is] 'yes' and nothing else."

 

'What I'm Doing Matters'

One chilly day in early April 2016, Lopez picked up a call from an unknown number; it was the White House. She'd been selected as an "It's On Us Champions of Change," part of the nationwide It's On Us campaign to end campus sexual assault. The caller invited Lopez to be recognized in a ceremony at the White House hosted by Vice President Joe Biden.

Lopez sprinted to the Check It office to share the extraordinary news with Savage and the staff and to celebrate; their impact on Humboldt's students would be recognized and appreciated, and on a national stage.

Lopez made the trip to D.C. for the Champions of Change event. Savage, beaming, sat in the crowd. When Vice President Biden called Lopez up to the podium, she carried Juno in one arm. "[Celene Lopez] had the courage to ask some pretty tough questions," said Biden at the White House ceremony. "To change the conversation on her campus about what constitutes consent."

"We were just so proud," remembers Lopez. "All the late nights, all the posters, all the intense conversations—and others that were light-hearted—and just trying to change the culture. And all the time you wonder if you're really making a difference." The recognition from the White House meant, she says, "What I'm doing matters. Everyone really deserves that moment."

Lopez will graduate in spring 2017; she's considering pursuing a master's degree. What she knows for sure is that she has changed, profoundly. "Check It has made me a more kind and compassionate human being and given me hope that culture change is truly possible," says Lopez.

"I will always be looking out for those around me."