Tammy Lerner has a longer commute than most GS students—three hours, one way. But that only accounts for part of her busy day. In addition to raising a family—she has a 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter and takes a regional bus from Pennsylvania on Mondays and Wednesdays to attend classes—Tammy works as an advocate at the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. Tammy, a survivor of abuse herself, co-founded the organization, which works to strengthen existing laws and to enact new laws in order to hold child-sex abusers to a greater degree of accountability.
“I was unable to sue my perpetrator, and there were six other victims [abused by the same individual] who were also unable to sue,” she said. “Right now there are a lot of loopholes, especially with regard to statute of limitations laws.”
Last year, after intensive lobbying from the foundation, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed a law that allows victims to file criminal complaints against their abusers until the age of 50—an increase of 20 years over the previous law. Although now very much immersed in her advocacy work,Tammy initially pursued art, rather than politics, studying in London and at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, specializing in oil painting. She later began her advocacy work but, after a few years, realized that she needed to return to school. “I work with a lot of lawyers, politicians, and lobbyists—and, if you’re not a lawyer, your voice isn’t really heard,” she said. “My purpose is to be more impactful in the work that I already do.”
After attending Lehigh Carbon Community College, she transferred to GS, where she plans to concentrate in human rights and major in political science or history—focusing especially on sex abuse cases and human rights violations in Latin America—before attending law school. But the shift to a different college environment—and one so far away from her family—has not been without its challenges.
“It’s hard,” she said. “For the past two years I was at the community college just 5 minutes from my house, and I could go home in between classes. This is just all-encompassing. It’s really, really tough. Some days it’s, ‘Do I work on my term paper?’ or ‘Do I call the House Speaker?’
“But I love it, I love Columbia. One of the things that amazes me is how smart my classmates are. They elevate me to another level and push me to where I didn’t think I could go before. I really like that competitive environment, and the resources are unbelievable: if you want a book, the library has it, or they can find it for you.
“I’ve also been really impressed with how the GS administration caters to an individual’s need—I know there are many people in the same position, with kids and a long commute and jobs, and it makes me feel less alone.
“And the professors—right now my professor is John Coatsworth, who’s a legend. He also co-wrote the book I used last year in my international relations class—I hadn’t realized that when I registered, but once I found out it was just the icing on the cake. These are things that I couldn’t get if I’d gone to college near my home.”
Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse website: http://www.abolishsexabuse.org/