In her early 20s, Ali Schaeffing had what she described as a great learning experience working as an intern at the state Attorney General’s Office.
Schaeffing worked in a small office of mostly women preparing outreach materials related to public policies and procedures. It was her first experience in a professional setting, and she remembers feeling that the staff members were kind and gave her opportunities to learn.
“I was always comfortable there,” Schaeffing said. “There’s a ‘but’ coming.”
There was one man in his 50s or 60s who worked in the office. Schaeffing remembers feeling that he, too, was always nice to her and that she never felt uncomfortable around him.
The man always used the elevator when navigating the office building, while Schaeffing always took the stairs. Shortly before her internship ended, Schaeffing and the man were leaving at the same time, probably chatting.
“This day he walked downstairs with me, which at the time I thought nothing of but now is something I am very aware of, and something many might be aware of when in close quarters with men,” Schaeffing said.
On the way down, Schaeffing said the man surprised her by pinning her against the wall in the stairwell and forcing his body against hers. He placed his hands on her midsection and kissed her. She said she was able to wiggle away and exit the building.
“I was shocked. I think I was kind of oblivious to these kinds of threats and vulnerabilities, and this man had been very nice to me, so it caught me off guard,” Schaeffing said.
That happened about 13 years ago. Schaeffing can’t remember exactly what she did afterward — she probably took the bus back to campus at the University at Albany. She can’t remember if she saw the man again after that day. She remembers feeling embarrassed and awkward, and doesn’t think she told anyone what happened.
The internship was ending and she never reported the incident. At the time, Schaeffing said, it probably didn’t even occur to her to report what happened. It was before she knew about sexual harassment law — and probably before she had even heard the term.
“Over the years, as I came of age and older and wiser and more attuned to systemic issues and social justice, I learned the importance of bringing these stories to light and how being quiet about them probably only creates more space for them to continue,” Schaeffing said.
Schaeffing didn’t allow that moment to deter her from pursuing her goals. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from UAlbany, and later a master of art and a doctorate from Rutgers University in human geography. Schaeffing realized her love for academia and has held various teaching positions. She currently works as an assistant professor and director of service learning at Russell Sage College.
Schaeffing feels supported in her current position, and found that colleagues and administrators were encouraging when she was deciding whether to share her story with a reporter.
“At this point in my life I feel very comfortable with where I am and would feel very comfortable talking openly about anything that happened,” Schaeffing said.
Even if that wasn’t the case, Schaeffing would recommend anyone who finds themselves facing sexual harassment or assault to speak out and seek support from someone they trust or from a counselor.
“I would encourage someone to talk about it immediately with someone they trust because I think it’s a difficult position to be in and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel alone in it,” Schaeffing said. “There are some bizarre disconnects, and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to try to navigate through that without help.”
She acknowledges that she sometimes minimizes what happened to her, describing it as “quick,” but if anyone else described a similar situation she would recognize the gravity of what transpired. She also struggled at times with whether she somehow encouraged the encounter, despite knowing she did nothing wrong. Hearing other women share their stories publicly has been helpful and encouraged her to share her own.
“I want society to get away from a place where women think it could be their fault because they were nice. I know I didn’t invite that, so I’m trying to recognize that tension and think about it as I may have an impact on the younger generation,” Schaeffing said. “I think talking about it openly and publicly goes a really long way in giving young women the space to do the same, the language to do it.”
And she has already observed how the ongoing public dialogue has benefited her students, as she has seen women in their early 20s who are comfortable openly discussing sexual harassment and assault, and speaking out when it happens.
“That’s a ton of progress from 13 years ago,” Schaeffing said.
Today’s stories – All too familiar:
- All too familiar: Local women share their stories of sexual harassment
- Yasmine Syed, Niskayuna: ‘It’s … a tactic to delegitimize and diminish a person’
- Nikita Hardy, Schenectady County: ‘People roll their eyes’
- Ali Schaeffing, Albany: ‘I know I didn’t invite that’
- Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, Schenectady: ‘We need to make sure that people are speaking up’
- Madelyn Thorne, Schenectady County: ‘This should have stopped a long time ago’
- Carmel Patrick, Schenectady: ‘It seemed so universal’
- Elizabeth Canavan, Niskayuna: ‘I had no idea what to say or how to respond’
- Amanda Gonzalez-Barone, Glenville: ‘It gets patronizing very quickly’
- What to do if you think you’re being sexually harassed at the office