ISU alumna raises awareness on sexual violence through short film


Vanessa McNeal, ISU alumni, stands with survivors from her sexual assault documentary that will be shown on March 31 in the Great Hall.

Alex Connor

It wasn’t until Vanessa McNeal, an ISU alumna, took a human sexuality class in college when she realized she was molested as a child.

“I knew when I was being molested that something wasn’t necessarily right, and that it wasn’t normal per se, but I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was,” McNeal said.

Suffering sexual abuse as a child from her sister and a cousin, McNeal speaks openly about her experiences and she now feels that she is “living out her truth” and doing something that she would never have imagined doing — producing films.

With many ties to Iowa State and a bachelor’s in child, family and adult services, McNeal is now a graduate student in the social work program at the University of Northern Iowa.

For the next few weeks, however, McNeal will travel across Iowa to screen and host panel discussions about her short film titled “We are Survivors.”

“We are Survivors” is a 15-minute film featuring the voices of eight sexual violence survivors and was filmed in Des Moines over the course of one day, with emotions packing the studio.

McNeal, who co-produced the film with ISU alumnus Michael Phipps Quinton Wayne, former ISU student and graduate of the Carolina Film Institute, described the filming to be challenging.

For some of the survivors featured in the film, they had never shared their story before. They felt anxiety, they had lots of nerves, but for some, they also felt relief, McNeal said.

“I think it was as difficult facing their truth as it was for me,” McNeal said. “But at the end of the day, I think everyone felt some sort of relief, just some sort of feeling of letting go. They shared something they had essentially been holding in for so long.”

In a promo for the short film, “We are Survivors,” the survivors featured are highlighted saying, “I’m OK … I’m nervous … this is one of the first times I’ve ever talked about this stuff so, it’s hard” and “I’m healing. That’s how I’m doing.”

This isn’t McNeal’s first film, however. In 2015, McNeal released “I Am,” an hour-long film that tells her story — one of surviving parental neglect, molestation and sexual assault.

Afterward, several survivors reached out to McNeal to tell their story. It was then when McNeal decided she was going to create another film.

With the help of Jade Jackson, junior in supply chain management who is also a survivor, McNeal and Jackson brainstormed new ideas to tell survivors’ stories.

McNeal described all of the survivors featured in the film as unique with unique stories who come from all walks of life.

“[But] they have one thing in common, McNeal said. “They are survivors and they have worked extremely hard to get to where they are today.”

For her next project, McNeal said she hopes to work toward erasing the stigma of sexual violence against men and is actively pursuing people who may be interested in telling their story.

The film “We are Survivors” is co-sponsored by Assault Care Center Extending Shelter and Support (ACCESS); College of Human Sciences’ Diversity, Equity, and Community Committee; Human Development and Family Studies; the Margaret Sloss Women’s Center; the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART); the YWCA Ames-ISU and the Committee on Lectures.

The short film will be screened at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union. After the film, McNeal will join a panel discussion that focuses on ways to support, encourage and empower survivors.

For more information about McNeal and her story, visit her website at