At tonight’s State of the Union address, it’s expected that President Obama will elaborate on his recent proposal to offer two years of cost-free community college to all Americans. As of late, the federal government has taken a renewed focus on the importance of education, making a point to illustrate how ensuring that all citizens have access to at least some college experience can lead to a healthier, more sound economy. Though this proposal is being lauded by many as a way for students who would otherwise be unable to attend college to do so, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of reforms to the student loan system and the sexual assault epidemic plaguing college campuses. At least one audience member — Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz — can certainly speak to that last point.
Since September, Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz has been leading a campaign to persuade the school into expelling the man who allegedly raped her earlier in her academic career. Her mattress-carrying demonstration — which has been described as part protest, and part performance art — caught the attention of national news along, as well as that of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). After learning of Sulkowicz’s struggle, Sen. Gillibrand offered her support, visiting the school in April to stump for increased federal funding to address the issue of on-campus sexual assault. Nine months later, and Sulkowicz finds herself with an invite to the year’s most high-profile presidential address.
Sulkowicz’s alleged rapist, who denies the sexual assault claims, told his side of the story in an interview with The New York Times. It was after Columbia cleared the student — who has been accused of assaulting at least three women — of any wrongdoing that Sulkowicz launched her mattress protest.
Meanwhile, Sulkowicz’ efforts have gained national attention and spawned demonstrations at campuses around the country, raising awareness about sexual assault and pushing for school policy changes that offer more protections for students.
The act of inviting someone so seemingly tied to a political issue or cause is one of the few ways members of Congress can silently praise or protest the State of the Union. Last year, Rep. Vance McAllister (R-LA) took Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson as his guest to the event, just one month after Robertson’s father, Phil drew the ire of many as a result of a GQ interview in which he compared same-sex relationships to bestiality. In 2013, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) invited rocker and National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent as his guest in protest of the president’s push for gun control.
Sen. Gillibrand’s motivation behind inviting Sulkowicz to the State of the Union stems from the belief that not only should college be affordable, but it should be safe, too.
“I hope he will also talk about working with our bipartisan coalition in Congress to make campuses safer, too,” Sen. Gillibrand told the New York Daily News. “I hope the President will seize this opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the need to flip the incentives that currently reward colleges for sweeping sexual assaults under the rug.”
The State of the Union address airs tonight at 9 p.m. ET.