After watching “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about rape on college campuses and institutions’ efforts to cover up the crimes, Therese Malinowski knew she wanted to make a difference. It didn’t matter that she was only a high school junior at the time.
“That was just incredibly disturbing to watch,” Malinowski said about the film, noting she and her peers were at a point where they would be on the college search soon. “We tried to look up whether the schools we were interested in were guilty of this, but there was, like, nothing online. And we very quickly found out that any information about sexual assault in general is just super buried.”
So she did something about it.
A year later, Project Dandelion was born. Project Dandelion, which was created by Malinowski and launched in January, is a database that gives students easy access to readily available, and specific, information on sexual assault crimes that have happened on college campuses throughout Illinois.
Malinowski, now a freshman at Purdue University, began working on the database the spring of her junior year in high school. The process started with a mentor from the Family Shelter Service of Metropolitan Family Services DuPage and a student group that quickly expanded into a team of about 25, she said.
“They helped me plan the project from the beginning, do research, and over the course of essentially a year, we developed a full-fledged campus sexual assault database that covers resources, statistics and general information on every college in Illinois,” said the Downer’s Grove native.
Malinowski was emboldened to create change for her community after watching the documentary, but the topic also carries personal weight for her. In middle school, someone close to her went through a sexual assault crisis.
“That was really my first exposure to sexual assault ever, and seeing it through the eyes of someone very close to me ... and seeing what it did to them, it was really scary,” said the 18-year-old. “Ever since then, I’ve been super passionate about sexual assault advocacy and justice and just raising awareness in general.”
The database can be accessed through the foundation’s website, as well as through the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA), which lists Project Dandelion as a resource on its site.
Creating the database and having it be acknowledged and listed by ICASA as a resource have been exciting for Malinowski, but the honors haven’t stopped there.
Girl Scouts of the USA awarded Malinowski a 2020 National Gold Award, the highest honor within the organization, for her advocacy and leadership. Malinowski is just one of 10 young women nationally to have earned the award. She was also awarded the honor on the local level from Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana.
“It’s honestly an incredible honor,” said Malinowski, who’s been a Girl Scout since kindergarten and is now a lifetime member. “I’ve always had such an infinitely high respect for the Gold Award. The idea of young women — even still in high school — making significant change in their communities, and to be recognized with nine other incredible projects from around the country, as what they think are really valuable and meaningful projects with substantial impact, is honestly incredible.”
Nancy Wright, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, says part of the significance of the Gold Award is that it shows girls that they have a voice, that they can lead, and that they can make change.
“Therese is already a leader, you can tell by the taking on (of) such an important subject as sexual assault on college campuses,” said Wright. “(The award) gives them the confidence to move forward in all aspects of their life.”
Accomplishing a Gold Award is really hard in a normal year, Wright said, so for Malinowski to earn it in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is exceptional.
“She selected something that she individually was passionate about, she led the process, she determined what she wanted to do, she did all the research … and created this solution for students who are coming to Illinois colleges and universities, which is huge impact for students in the future and now,” said Wright.
Long term, Malinowski hopes Project Dandelion will keep expanding and improving, and “maybe go national,” she said. But right now, she’s basking in the satisfaction of her shared accomplishments with her peers.
“It’s been amazing seeing what one girl can do to make such a difference in her community, and really the world,” she said.
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