IUPUI student-activist onstage for Oscar moment to be remembered

By Diane Brown, IU Communications Specialist

Traveling to California to appear onstage with Lady Gaga during her performance at the 2016 Oscars isn’t a bad way for a college senior to spend a weekend.

And when you’re told not to worry about what to wear since the Academy would take care of your wardrobe, well, that’s enough to give any girl visions of Dior, Gucci or Stella McCartney.

But any dreams IUPUI student Kiratpreet Sandhu might have had of wearing a heavily embellished gown by Armani or a diamond necklace by Harry Winston gave way to the reality of wearing an orange top, jeans and a denim jacket — typical campus dress.

The 2016 Oscars

The 2016 Oscars

They wanted her group to dress like ordinary college students, Sandhu learned. Her bling for the evening were the words “Not Your Fault,” written on her right arm with a black Sharpie.

But how did Sandhu, a 21-year-old majoring in philanthropic studies and women’s/gender studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, come to share the stage with Gaga during the star’s powerful performance of “Til it Happens to You”?

If you haven’t heard, Sandhu was among the 50 survivors of sexual abuse who took to the stage during the last verse of the song, which was nominated for Best Original Song.

The piece was written by Gaga and Diane Warren for “Hunting Ground,” a CNN documentary about campus sexual assault and how universities across the United States handle it.

Lady Gaga and IUPUI senior and student-activist Kiratpreet Sandhu at 2016 Oscars.

Lady Gaga and IUPUI senior and student-activist Kiratpreet Sandhu at 2016 Oscars.

Sandhu has served on the National Student Advisory Committee for the It’s On Us campaign since last fall. “It’s a campaign that aims to fundamentally shift the way college campuses think about campus sexual assault,” Sandhu said. “It’s on all of us to end campus sexual assault.”

After joining the national committee, Sandhu joined the student government at IUPUI to bring the initiative to the campus and to the Indianapolis community.

When It’s on Us called three days before the Oscars looking for survivors, Sandhu said “yes” to the invite.

While most on the stage that night were survivors of campus sexual assault, “I personally am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse,” Sandhu said. “The root causes of both things are very similar. The side effects of what we experience in the aftermath are very similar.”

“Gaga wanted all of us on that stage to be survivors to make a visual statement, to show the world that it’s way past time to take action on this issue.

Kirat's arm carries empowering message at the Oscars.

Kirat’s arm carries empowering message at the Oscars.

“Nobody on that stage was just a survivor. They were all outspoken activists: survivors who had shared their stories, who had worked hard to make sure legislative changes were being pushed, that administrative changes were being pushed on their campuses.

“To me, it was such an inspiring group,” Sandhu said. “It was a moment of validation for all the times I had to fight to share my story and to face that backlash. It was so empowering.”

Sandhu was sexually abused  from age 5 to 7 by two cousins.

“They were only a few years older than me, but old enough to know better,” she said.

She was 14 or 15 before she could share it with her parents. Telling more and more people has been very difficult, even though no has ever thought she was lying.

“People know this goes on, but people are so used to sweeping it under the rug,” she said. “It was uncomfortable for them that I was bringing it up so boldly. That what I got ostracized for.”

Some family members still disapprove of her boldness.

“It’s been hard. Of course I wish everybody would have been open and supportive from the very beginning, and not just after I was on the Oscar stage, but unfortunately that is not how it happened,” Sandhu said.

Part of the struggle has been deciding to whom, when and how much to share, without making listeners uncomfortable.

“[But] in the last year or so, I have come to terms with the fact that if it makes people uncomfortable, I am doing it right,” Sandhu said. “Because even though it makes people uncomfortable, people need to talk about it. That’s the only we are going to change the culture, that we are going to change the root causes of why sexual assault and sexual abuse are so prevalent.

Kiratpreet Sandhu, left, and McKinney School of Law Professor Jennifer Drobac on panel at IUPUI screening of "The Hunting Ground."

Kiratpreet Sandhu, left, and McKinney School of Law professor Jennifer Drobac on panel at IUPUI screening of “The Hunting Ground.”

Sandhu shared her experiences during a panel discussion held at IUPUI in November following a viewing of “The Hunting Ground” at McKinney School of Law. Afterward, parents asked how they should approach the topic with their children.

What is Sandhu’s call to action for parents?

“Be proactive, not reactive,” the survivor-activist said. “Most of all, start early. Teach children what consent looks like from a very, very young age. That’s when ‘toxic masculinity’ and other dangerous ideas start to develop.”

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