Elizabeth Smart Foundation bringing self-defense class to SUU campus

Elizabeth Smart Foundation bringing self-defense class to SUU campus

Elizabeth Smart discusses the Smart Defense classes available to Southern Utah University students at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The self-defense class founded by Smart is now available to Southern Utah University students. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Elizabeth Smart wondered if she had a target on her head after being a victim of sexual assault while sleeping on board an airplane a couple of years ago.

“I couldn’t believe that something like this had happened to me again. I finally just said to my husband, ‘Do I just have a big sign across my forehead that says ‘easy victim?'” Smart said.

It was this experience that led Smart to found Smart Defense, a self-defense class that teaches women and girls techniques from krav maga, Brazillian jiu-jitsu and muay thai, as well as concepts such as setting boundaries and identifying red flags.

Smart Defense is an arm of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, founded in 2011 by Smart, who was abducted from her Salt Lake home in 2002, after which she endured nine months of sexual assault and abuse at the hands of her captors. The foundation carries the mission to bring hope and end the victimization of sexual assault and abuse through prevention, healing and advocacy.

Now, that self-defense class is coming to a college campus as the Elizabeth Smart Foundation announced Wednesday that Smart Defense classes will be available to Southern Utah University students beginning this fall.

“I wanted to be able to give women specifically — and children and girls, men as well, but mostly women — the education to protect themselves,” Smart said. “I did not have that and I wanted to change that.”

Steph Oguey and Carl Sims demonstrate a self-defense tactic at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The foundation and Southern Utah University have teamed up to offer Smart Defense classes to SUU students beginning this fall.
Steph Oguey and Carl Sims demonstrate a self-defense tactic at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The foundation and Southern Utah University have teamed up to offer Smart Defense classes to SUU students beginning this fall. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SUU is the first university to implement this self-defense program into its on-campus curriculum. The class will be included under SUU’s Department of Kinesiology and Outdoor Recreation. Smart Defense will be a one-credit elective course offered during spring and fall, accommodating 40 students per semester.

“SUU is small enough and nimble enough, but progressive that we can do things like this,” SUU President Mindy Benson said.

Benson said SUU was approached by the Elizabeth Smart Foundation and the Malouf Foundation — a Utah-based nonprofit dedicated to confronting child sexual exploitation and specifically sex trafficking and online abuse — in the summer about the possibility of bringing Smart Defense to campus in the fall.

“We absolutely said yes very quickly, and how can you say no to Miyo? I was a little afraid,” Benson quipped, referring to Miyo Strong, a three-time world master champion in Brazillian jiu-jitsu, sexual assault survivor, and Smart Defense program director.

Bringing her extensive experience as both a teacher and competitor in combat sports to a university campus has been “completely incredible,” Strong said.

Mindy Benson, president of Southern Utah University, speaks about the Smart Defense classes available to SUU students during a press conference at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Mindy Benson, president of Southern Utah University, speaks about the Smart Defense classes available to SUU students during a press conference at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Strong taught her inaugural class at SUU on Monday and described it as a powerful experience.

“I have daughters in high school and junior high age, so they’re very close to college age,” Strong said. “It is so empowering for me, as a mother, to see all the interest from the females in the freshman class and also just to have the chance to work with them and to make a difference for them.”

So far, the response on campus has been strong, too. The class has two sections, both of which are maxed out.

Avery Hunter is a graduate of Smart Defense and a freshman at SUU, where she’s taking the class again for credit.

“I think this is such an important topic to learn about and to be able to experience how to defend yourself. Especially on a college campus there are areas that might not be safe, there are people that might give you the creeps,” Hunter said. “Having the knowledge to know these red flags and to know where risks can be, and then being able to defend yourself when you are in a risky situation like that is so great.”

Right now, SUU is the only college offering Smart Defense classes as a class that can be taken for college credit, but both Benson and Smart indicated that they are working to change that.

Mindy Benson, president of Southern Utah University, left, Elizabeth Smart and Kacie Malouf, co-founder and chairwoman of Malouf Foundation, discuss the Smart Defense classes available to Southern Utah University students during a press conference at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Mindy Benson, president of Southern Utah University, left, Elizabeth Smart and Kacie Malouf, co-founder and chairwoman of Malouf Foundation, discuss the Smart Defense classes available to Southern Utah University students during a press conference at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Kacie Malouf, co-founder and board chairwoman of the Malouf Foundation, said that her and Smart’s foundation — which merged in January — are engaging in talks to bring Smart Defense to Utah State University.

“They’re offering it right now as like an after-hours class and (we’re) hopeful that in 2023, in fall, that they can have it as a college course,” Malouf said.

Strong said she has a “handful” of takeaways that she hopes her students will leave her class with.

“Just how worthy they are, how worthy they are of healthy relationships and how capable they are of setting healthy boundaries and also how capable they are, physically, of enforcing those boundaries, as well as just building a really strong community of empowered females that support each other,” Strong said.

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Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and military news.

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