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USF’s outstanding graduate overcomes tragedy

TAMPA, Fla. -- This summer’s outstanding graduate from the University of South Florida has experienced, overcome and achieved more than most will ever do in a lifetime.

And she’s just getting started.

When it came time for the USF Alumni Association to make its choice for this honor -- which recognizes a graduating senior who embodies leadership, school spirit, community service, character and academic excellence -- Emily Tocci’s application topped the short list.

Her list of accomplishments is impressive: outstanding student leader, community activist, accomplished ballerina, devoted wife and loving mother. Any one of them would be enough, but if her life teaches anything, it is to never take those descriptions lightly. And as you learn about Tocci, you’re left to wonder, how did she do it -- how could she do it?

The political science major discovered that slavery still exists in the United States, in Florida, in Tampa Bay, first hand. She is a survivor of sexual violence and human trafficking that cruelly robbed her of nearly a year of her life.

Working nights at a strip club to earn enough to stay at home with her premature baby and attend school during the day put her in a vulnerable position. Traffickers target the most vulnerable. Her beauty, dancing talent and naiveté attracted the unthinkable. Kidnapped, imprisoned, beaten, raped, sold and under constant threat, she managed to escape.

A safe house, competent and ethical law enforcement, qualified counseling and a college education helped along the way, but ultimately she had to save her own life.

Not all agencies of government are well trained in this area.

“Trafficking victims are hidden in plain sight,” she said. “They’re either people who are difficult to see, such as immigrants or people we don’t want to see, such as strippers and sex workers. The agents and detectives who are trained and compassionate have made a world of difference.”

What might have stopped her dead in her tracks -- physically and emotionally -- has instead inspired her to work tirelessly advocating and lobbying for new bills to help victims of such crimes. Tocci holds a leadership role with the Sexual Violence Task Force of Tampa Bay, in which she authored several amendments that were included in House Bill 251, passed this year. The bill included the requirement for an officer to provide or arrange for transportation of a sexual battery victim to a certified rape crisis center. Tocci is a powerful speaker on the topic. And she doesn’t want people to misunderstand what she went through.

“People need to understand the distinction between trafficking, smuggling and kidnapping,” she said. “They can all coexist but trafficking thrives on force, fraud or coercion, not necessarily the act of physical imprisonment or transport. After the first initial incident, my traffickers could control me within inches of my body or from miles away. They feed off, and profit from keeping you ashamed and helpless, distrustful of others, and believing you chose this or deserve it. No one deserves to be victimized regardless of what they do or who they are. Traffickers don’t discriminate; they capitalize on vulnerability and fear, and that’s how they keep you enslaved.”

Ultimately, she said, “survival and healing are different. It is literally the difference between remaining alive and living a life. I made instinctual decisions to survive with my life, and I had to reach out and trust others who could help me to actually live it. The survival instincts don’t work the same when you’re trying to live a whole and fulfilling life.”

Her accomplishments are many.

A trained ballerina, she performed throughout Florida. Her credits include the Sarasota Ballet, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Florida West Ballet company, Expressions dance company, the Show Palace Dinner Theater, Centerstage dance company, and the Asolo Theatre, among others. She also taught ballet and modern dance for more than 10 years and choreographed for competitions, for private training, for dance studios and companies.

Her participation in student government and student organizations at USF is another long list. Tocci was elected and appointed to leadership positions, most notably she served as an associate justice on the USF Supreme Court helping to resolve student disputes involving parking, tuition, fees and health services. She was a regional commissioner for One Student, an organization that creates alliances with various universities across the state to create innovative ideas for getting campuses involved in activism against sexual violence. And she participated in other student organizations, including Student Government, NITE (Necessary Improvements to Transform our Environment), REAL (Relationship Equality and Anti-Violence League), and was involved with campus events such as Take Back the Night and Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.

At the USF Preschool for Creative Learning she worked on planning activities and events with parents and teachers for the children and volunteered in the classrooms, on field trips and attended to various issues there.

But Tocci considers her best accomplishments her happy marriage and two children she describes as “amazing, intelligent and kind.” They provide her happiest and proudest moments as a wife and mother.

“My kids are my success and my motivation,” she said. “Everything I do is to help them be a little safer, a little more empowered, and instill a compassion in them to help others. If they were unhappy, none of the work I do would be worth it. And if they say, ‘Mommy, come home,’ wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I’m back to them as quick as I can.”

So, how did she do it? She decided to fight her way back and she sought out and accepted help. None of this was easy.

Tocci is still overcoming feelings and moments of terror and posttraumatic stress disorder, but so far she has fought back every negative and demeaning message her captors hurled at her claiming she could not. Every class she took taught her more than the subject matter. They taught her she was an excellent student, a scholar and capable.

“I battled hyper-vigilance on my way to class and panic attacks when raising my hand to ask a question, believing everyone would think I was an idiot, believing that maybe my words had no worth,” she said. “Instead I was asked to read aloud (in class) ... my midterm essay on an area of constitutional law, which had received a grade of 100 percent, along with two other exams and essays.”

In addition to validation in the classroom, she found opportunities to be an activist on campus. These experiences gave her back to herself and restored what was taken from her by the profound evil that touched her life. The USF Counseling Center helped with understanding and provided caring counselors.

“I literally could not have done anything I’ve done without my advocate through the USF Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention,” Tocci said. “She would never take any credit, but it is true. Because I could trust her, I was open to trusting others and receiving help. They provide amazing, state-certified, trained advocates for crime victims.

“The Bull in me will not disappear. USF is not only the place that kept me alive physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, but it is an intangible energy that I will carry with me for the rest of my life for confidence and guidance. Without this university embracing me, I do not believe I would be here.”

Tocci will attend law school in the fall, with a permanent place for USF in her heart and a determination to continue helping others.

“I am not the best, nor the smartest, nor the most prestigious student here, but I doubt there are very many more who are as grateful as I am for my education or who have experienced so dramatic a transformation,” she said. “My life has improved immeasurably because of USF and this continues to influence me daily to do better and change other lives because of it.”

She will be acknowledged at commencement ceremonies that take place at 2 p.m. Aug. 6 at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Government and International Affairs Student Success   
Author: Barbara Melendez