IUPUI student joined Lady Gaga for Oscars performance honoring survivors of sexual assault

IUPUI senior Kirat Sandhu at Sunday's Academy Awards.
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It's a moment 21-year-old Kirat Sandhu will never forget.

Sunday night, Sandhu stood on stage at the Oscars, surrounded by fellow survivors of sexual violence as Lady Gaga performed "'Til It Happens to You," her Oscar-nominated song about sexual assault.

"I'm so inspired by everyone who was there, including Lady Gaga," said Sandhu, who explained she is a child sex abuse survivor.

Sandhu doesn't want you to forget her unforgettable moment either, because of what she hopes it will mean in the fight to raise awareness about campus sexual assault.

"I'm not a survivor of campus sexual assault. I'm a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, but when we were talking about our experiences, the things we feel, they are all so similar," said Sandhu. "This is a reality that we live with every single day. It's a pain we face every single day and I don't want the world to forget about it. I want the world to take action."

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The IUPUI senior is part of "It's On Us" - a nationwide campaign to end sexual violence on college campuses. 

"As hard as it is for us to share our stories and to come forward, to be this emotional in front of such a wide audience, that really paid off for us," Sandhu said. "It was definitely a moment I’ll never forget. Really, really empowering."

Sandhu got a call last Thursday from the group's national headquarters asking if she wanted to go to the Oscars. By Friday, she was face-to-face with Lady Gaga at rehearsals.

"She came over and she hugged every single one of us, all 50 of us on that stage. She hugged us and she talked to us," Sandhu recalled. "She really made a point to say, 'We're not just bodies on the stage. We're not human props. We're there as a support system for her and we're helping her get through the performance.'

"That was the realest conversation I've ever had with a survivor and she talked about some days you wake up and you're having a bad day and you're not exactly sure why, but in the pit of your stomach, you know exactly why. It's because of what happened to you," recalled Sandhu.

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When the lights came on during the live performance, Sandhu and her fellow survivors felt the enormity of the moment.

"That night when we heard her, we were all very emotional behind the scenes," said IUPUI senior Kirat Sandhu. "We were holding hands in our lines, some of us crying, and then when that wall comes up, that was a really, really powerful moment for us."

The Brownsburg native didn't know it at the time, but during Gaga's performance, a camera zoomed in on her arm where she had written words that have become a personal mantra on the dark days.

"(It's) Not my fault," the words read.

"I'll never accept that little voice inside my head that says 'Maybe it was'," Sandhu said.

She said through rehearsals, producers had written "Survivor" on her arm. But two hours before showtime, she scrubbed it off and changed it to the more personal message.

"I did not expect them to zoom in on my arm. So that’s funny how it worked out," she said.

Sandhu hopes those words resonated with someone Sunday, even if they reached just one person among the millions who watched.

"There's that idea that if you can reach one person, that's enough," said Sandhu.

Sandhu said she and the other survivors never expected quite the reaction from the performance.

"Everyone would tell us we were going to get a standing O, this is gonna be a moment and part of us, you know, we're not used to people believing us or celebrating what we have to say," she said. "So, we weren't sure exactly what was going to happen, but to see every single person in that theater stand up, to us that was a moment of validation."

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Sandhu also never expected the reaction she got from people she knows.

"I had so many Facebook messages, Tweets, text messages, phone calls," she said. "Just all this outpouring of love and support. I mean, I’ve never told that many people all at once. And this is obviously telling everyone all at once, this is what happened to me and this is what I’m going to do about it. It’s a fight I’m gonna keep fighting. It was really encouraging to see all that love and support."

The experience is one she'll never forget.

"We’re not just defined by how we survive," Sandhu said. "A big part of Lady Gaga’s performance was not about just surviving, but thriving and that’s really what we were all doing on that stage last night."

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