Alumni Features

Advocating for a SAFE Dallas: Courtney Underwood


Courtney Underwood, 05, 08, became a leader in North Texas in promoting programs to assist survivors of sexual assault. She co-founded the Dallas Rape Crisis Center and since 2013 has been the Executive Director of the SANE Initiative in Dallas. Her latest program, Courtney’s SAFE Place, is North Texas's first community clinic for survivors of sexual violence which opened at Turning Point in Plano on November 13. With this new endeavor and other long-term plans for the future, Underwood continues her tireless efforts to help survivors.


What drew you to SMU when you were deciding on a university? How did you come to a decision?


Being born and raised in the Park Cities, I grew up around the beauty and prestige of SMU. As a high school senior, the biggest draw was knowing that I would be in small classes with professors who were passionate about interacting with students, and I was excited about all that the Honors Program had to offer.


Can you share an experience or two that sums up your experience at SMU best? Is there a particular member of the faculty, project, or course that you would consider to be a defining moment for you?


Can I have a few pages? As a freshman completing a paper as the final for one of Dr. Kathleen Wellman’s classes, I walked into her office to turn in not one final paper, but two—with a backup for the first one if she didn’t like it. She accepted both with an amused smile. That defined my experience with so many SMU professors: they were willing to do extra work, mentor outside of office hours, and never failed to show their excitement with a student who wanted to work hard and learn. Being a TA for the Psychology Department, taking notes when another student was horribly injured in an accident and missing classes, having professors roll their eyes slightly and tell me I could make the paper as long as I wanted—that built a confidence in me that transformed me completely.


Tell us a little more about the SANE Initiative. How did it begin? What are your long term goals for the program? What has the journey been like as you’ve continued to build and expand SANE Programs in Dallas?


I started working to bring a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Program to Dallas while I was at SMU. It was a seven year battle, but in 2010 the first SANE Program opened at Texas Health Dallas, and I co-founded the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center with Jana Barker. In 2013 I launched The SANE Initiative, which has partnered with multiple hospitals to help create and expand SANE Programs and to expand counseling and advocacy services for survivors of sexual violence across the county. Now, 20 years after being sexually assaulted at knife point at the age of 15, and 15 years after beginning this campaign, I’m partnering with The Turning Point to open Courtney’s SAFE Place, the first 24/7 forensic clinic in North Texas, opening in Plano this month.


How did your experience at SMU prepare you to lead such an important effort? Did you work with any faculty or take courses that helped prepare you to take on a leadership role to address the gap of adequate services at all Dallas hospitals for victims of sexual assault? 


I’ve always credited my SMU professors, especially from the Psychology and English departments, with inspiring me to believe in myself and teaching me that with hard work you can move mountains. Having the opportunity in the Psychology Department to work closely with Dr. Ernest Jouriles and Dr. Renee McDonald was extremely impactful. Additionally, running my own research project on Rape Myth Bias as part of Psychology’s Distinction Program commented the determination I still carry to fight any obstacle to create change for survivors.


What is your vision for Dallas and the SANE Program? How do you see your program continuing to grow and adapt to the needs of victims of sexual assault? How do you hope to continue to improve our city?


My dream is to open a Family Advocacy and Justice Center in Dallas that will bring a number of the existing services for victims of crime under one roof, much like the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, but for the entire family unit. With or without the justice center, my primary goal now is to open another Courtney’s SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic) Exam clinic in Dallas County—providing survivors with an option outside of going to a hospital while designing the clinic to meet the needs of Dallas residents.


What was the most satisfying part of your work? What are you most proud of?


Working with SMU survivors and supporting them as someone who was a victim and now stands as a survivor is an honor that I can’t express in words. They inspire me. And if you don’t know SMU alumna Monika Korra’s story, google her. We’ve turned our stories and partnership into an opportunity to train hundreds of people. Helping one survivor would have been enough for me; knowing these programs have helped thousands, well…


Advice to other students or potential students? Do you have any special advice for those who may be interested in pursuing a career in advocacy?


If you’re at SMU or considering SMU because you want to be a world changer, because you want to come to a school where professors aren’t only willing to “deal” with you during office hours, but rather are thrilled to answer your questions and discuss theories even if they were about to head home, then you’ll love SMU. SMU faculty are extremely and extraordinarily passionate about their students and provide phenomenal mentoring. SMU also provides the opportunity to learn in one of the most philanthropic cities in our nation and SMU professors and alumni have the resources to help connect you to people who can help you make your dreams to improve the world happen. And if you’re interested in advocacy call me; if you want to make the world a better please know that you absolutely can do it—and if I can help, I absolutely will.