Not many undergraduate students are selected to present at the American Public Health Association's national conference. However, South Dakota State University senior Leah Hendrickson presented at the 2020 event in late October.
A psychology major from Clear Lake, Hendrickson’s presentation was titled “The Importance of Sexual Assault Prevention Training: Effects & Implementation in South Dakota Schools.” Her presentation was based on her individual work and the Sexual Assault Prevention & Survivor Support Program, the program she started in 2018.
According to Hendrickson, presenters typically are graduate students or full-time professionals. As a result, she screamed in excitement when she received notification she would be presenting. Hendrickson applied to present in 2019 but thought her chances were better in 2020 as the conference’s theme was on preventing violence.
Hendrickson founded the Sexual Assault Prevention & Survivor Support Program after one of her friends was raped in a nearby town. That incident came a few years after Hendrickson’s younger sister outran a kidnapping attempt in Clear Lake.
“A lot of people had been talking about these issues, but I realized no one is really doing anything so I’m going to do something. I took it to high schools but really wanted it to be discussed at a national level,” she said. “I hope the conference is a good steppingstone as I made some good connections. Now, it’s time to see how far I can take the program.”
She was recognized for her efforts with SAPSSP at the 2020 April Brooks Women of Distinction and Ally Awards. Hendrickson, who has presented her free program to more than 300 students at three area schools, also received a $3,500 grant from the Rocky Mountain Public Health Training Center.
“She’s a fantastic student who really puts her whole heart into everything she does,” said assistant professor Kelli Chromey, who had Hendrickson in a class two years ago and has worked with her since. “She has come so far already and has so much farther to go. You can see she’s already working at the level of doctoral students and early professionals at such as a young age—it really shows her determination and passion. It’s phenomenal to think she has come up with a program all on her own at her age and has it working.”
The hourlong SAPSSP class is geared toward middle and high school students and early career professionals. Hendrickson said that is because the people who are most likely to experience sexual assault are between the ages 11 to 34.
“It’s a hands-on self-defense class. It’s primarily to prevent sexual assaults, but it also works for stopping kidnappings, domestic violence, muggings … you name it,” Hendrickson said. “Over 95% of the students thought other schools should implement this program, and over 70% of the students felt safer going into the world as a result of the program.”
Hendrickson is grateful for the presentation experience. She has received some feedback, including one person suggesting she try to get published in the American Journal of Public Health. She plans to update her literature review and submit it for consideration.
After graduation, she plans to attend the University of South Dakota and earn a master’s degree in social work before entering the private counseling sector. However, if her program continues to grow, she would like to focus on it.
“A lot of schools see me as just this kid who graduated a few years ago, making credibility a big hurdle. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do the conference,” Hendrickson said. “The presentation shows I’m credible, have a program worth telling others about and have a lot of experience under my belt.”