Student advocates for sexual assault prevention


Selma Newbill has many things to be proud of. She is a Forbes 30 Under 30 Scholar, an ambassador for the Honors College and a 2020 finalist for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

But out of all these accomplishments, Newbill is most proud of creating the Sexual Assault Prevention Ambassadors, which she described as being the most rewarding experience of her life.  

Newbill, a junior political science and English double major,  got the idea to create SAPA in 2017 after she was sexually assaulted during her first semester at Southern Miss.

“I went to somebody to talk to about it, and they said ‘What were you wearing? Were you drunk? Why were you out at 8 o’clock at night?’ And I said, ‘Not that it matters, but I was studying for my midterms, in the library sober wearing a t-shirt and shorts,’ and I got up and left,” Newbill said. 

Knowing that she wasn’t the only one to experience this, Newbill looked for any organizations on campus related to sexual assault, only to find nothing. Soon after that, she created SAPA. In 2018, the organization won Best New Student Organization in 2018. 

SAPA currently has 85 members. Members are required to undergo Green Dot Bystander Intervention Training, which educates people on how to safely intervene in cases of sexual assault or violence. Because of this, Housing and Residence Life now require their professional staff to also undergo Green Dot training. Newbill and SAPA have also influenced changes in the way UPD handles sexual assault cases. 

Newbill said she has seen a noticeable difference in the way sexual assault is viewed on campus since the creation of SAPA.

“I think SAPA has changed a lot of things. I’ve seen people become more accepting. I’ve seen a lot of survivors tell me that it’s saved them and healed them,” Newbill said.

Bella Brocato, a sophomore political science major, serves as the lead facilitator for SAPA. Brocato said that becoming a member of SAPA and becoming friends with Newbill has changed her for the better. 

“She is a really good role model, not just for me, but for everyone. She has motivated me to become a better person and leader, and I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot through SAPA,” Brocato said.

One of the defining moments for Newbill and SAPA happened in February 2019 when Southern Miss considered hiring Art Briles. Briles was fired as head coach at Baylor amidst a sexual assault scandal. Newbill said she took the issue seriously due to the progress she’d seen the university make regarding its views on sexual assault.

Newbill said she spent three days contacting everyone she could at the university to try to make her voice heard and stop the hiring. Her efforts eventually got her a meeting with Southern Miss President Rodney Bennett, Ph.D. 

“He really wanted to hear what I had to say,” Newbill said. “He wanted to listen to me, and he ended up talking to me about the problem and he was very understanding that I was trying to represent other people, not just myself and my interests. And when Briles didn’t get hired, that was amazing.”

Since then, Newbill now meets with Bennett every semester to discuss SAPA and what the university can do to prevent assaults.

In April 2019, SAPA held its first Denim Day, which encourages people to wear jeans to bring awareness to sexual assault. Newbill said the event is observed worldwide but is not very common in the South. 

Newbill spoke about the event with Bennett, who offered his support and publicized the event with staff and faculty.

“He showed up in his sports coat and jeans on that day. All of Student Affairs and Moffit was in jeans and they were posting it online. It was just amazing,” Newbill said. 

Soon after, the Division of Student Affairs created the Selma Newbill Pursuit of Passion Award and awarded it to Newbill. 

“I didn’t stop where I think a lot of people probably would have. Dr. Dee Dee Anderson presented me with that award, and I was so thankful,” Newbill said. 

Project Director for Nationally Competitive Programs Carlee Causey worked with Newbill on her application for the Truman Scholarship and said that Newbill has reignited her passion for social change.

“Selma is equal parts passion and compassion,” Causey said. “She is boldly fighting this difficult, personal fight of sexual assault prevention and awareness, and she cares deeply for those around her and is intent on including them in her work and/or supporting them in whatever battle they’re fighting.”

In the future, Newbill said she wants to keep advocating for sexual assault prevention by working in policy and starting her own non-profit for sexual assault survivors. 

Newbill said that although it can be hard to make a difference, anyone who wants to work toward a change in their community should follow their dreams and passions.

“It can be hard to make a tangible difference, and I still feel like I’m fighting a fight that I still lose sometimes, but the reality is that I’m not and that I was making a difference when there were only five people in SAPA,” Newbill said.