As a freshman, I walked everywhere with an unjust amount of confidence and sense of safety.
I lived in North Mountain and my friend’s dorm, where I spent a majority of my time at night, was in Yakʔitʸutʸu, exactly half a mile away from mine.
Every night I would make the walk back to my room alone, in the dark, never thinking that anything bad would happen to me. The campus felt secure despite being poorly lit and there being lots of places for people to hide.
These feelings of safety extended to when I would drunk walk back from parties off campus. Yes, most of the time I was in a group when I was off campus, but naturally, there always came a time when my group would part ways and we would find our way back to our separate dorms.
What could’ve happened to me in the half-mile back when I was clearly not all there?
The same thing that happened to Kristin Smart.
Smart was a freshman at Cal Poly in 1996 when she attended an off campus party alone. There she drank alcohol and ended up making her way to campus with a group of people she had met that night. The next day she was reported missing by her roommate and Smart hasn’t been seen since. The last person to be seen with Smart, Paul Flores, is currently facing murder charges for Smart’s disappearance, yet her body has still not been found.
The funny thing was I didn’t even know the name Kristin Smart until I was a sophomore at Cal Poly, which was right around the time the “Your Own Backyard” podcast was starting to release episodes. The podcast reinvigorated the case; however, a student going missing, most likely at the hands of another student is something I feel like should’ve been more common knowledge amongst new students, especially female students.
Smart was allegedly killed in a dorm just hundreds of feet away from mine over two decades before, yet most students didn’t know her name or her story. This is because, up until the resurgence of the case due to the podcast, she wasn’t talked about ever. She was just a face some people saw on a billboard if they just so happened to be driving in the right spot down in Arroyo Grande.
I understand not wanting to turn her name into a cautionary tale, but ultimately that is what she has turned into. One Cal Poly alum is currently using the “Your Own Backyard” podcast in her high school AP Language and Composition class as a way to preserve Smart’s memory. Additionally, the Week of Welcome and orientation uses Carson Starkey as an example for students and to honor his memory, so Smart should be honored and discussed in the same manner.
Starkey tragically passed away from alcohol poisoning during a fraternity event in 2008 and has since become a well-known name during orientation. His death launched various alcohol awareness initiatives and served as a way to educate students on being cautious and aware at parties of how much they are consuming. It also caused a crackdown on fraternity hazing.
I think Smart’s story should be used in a similar way.
By including Smart’s story in WOW, her life can be remembered and honored similarly to how Starkey’s story is. Starkey’s story is used to acknowledge who he was as a person in the Cal Poly community and that he didn’t deserve what happened to him. That could be the same for Smart.
She was a light wherever she went and people were drawn to her and she should be remembered as such. She shouldn’t just be a reminder of what not to do and by putting her name in WOW she can be honored adequately for who she was.
Currently, Cal Poly students are told through various channels how to take safety precautions when going out, but there is so much more power to having a face to a story to make a lasting impression. By having an orientation presentation telling the story of Smart, students, young freshmen girls especially, will take their safety and well-being more seriously.
Smart’s story is tragic, meanwhile is the prime example of what NOT to do when you go out. Don’t go out alone; be aware of what substances you consume; don’t take drinks from people you don’t know; don’t be left alone with a stranger.
The actions that followed her being left alone were not her fault and I believe that boys should be taught not to rape or murder and girls shouldn’t have to be taught how not to get raped or murder. However, the reality of the world we are living in is that girls have to be taught how not to be put in dangerous situations and Smart is a good way to exemplify why that is.
That doesn’t disparage the teachings to boys, however. Smart’s story can also be used to show why men should look out for their female friends. The world isn’t safe for women, which is a fact most men are ignorant too until they witness it for themselves. Timothy Davis saw Smart at the party with Flores and was one of the people she went back to campus with. He let her go with Flores, even though Smart was clearly too intoxicated and Flores was known to have a history of stalker-ish behavior. Davis has said “knowing Kristin is gone and dead is a lot of weight on me.”
By sharing Smart’s story as a part of orientation education, boys can become aware of girls’ realities when they go out and they can help them. It is not their responsibility to, and I am not saying women need a man to save them, but raising awareness on dangers that end lives, such as Smart’s, are critical discussions freshmen should be having.
Freshmen should be educated on how to speak up and intervene when something doesn’t seem right and taught what potential red flags are in interactions that are important to recognize. Without this type of education, progress cannot be made.
Her case and story are so deeply ingrained in the San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly community it feels almost bizarre that she is not a part of orientation education. I wish I knew about her when I was that age because it would have led to me making smarter decisions when I went out. Putting a face to a sentiment helps instill the “why” in which people should do things and Smart’s story would do just that.
It is awful what happened to her, but using her story to educate and help thousands of young women every year seems like a good way to remember and carry out her legacy.