People attend an awards ceremony honoring American University’s sexual-assault prevention program Sept. 25. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Samantha Russell is in her senior year at American University. And in her time on the Northwest Washington campus, so much has changed.

To start with, when Russell arrived as a freshman in fall 2014, a program known as Empower AU wasn't even around.

As someone who helps educate her peers about staying well, she can tell you all about Empower AU: It involves students working with fellow students, teaching about consent, boundaries and what resources are available. It began a few years ago, during a time of increased national attention on the issue of campus sexual assault — a time of sweeping change and vocal concern across the country.

"Freshmen come in, and it's almost an icebreaker with them, meeting their now-peers but also learning these new topics and learning that it's okay to talk about sex, it's okay to be open about this stuff, it's okay to ask questions," said Russell, an international relations major from Scituate, Mass.

In recent years, a subject once consigned to the shadows — sexual abuse, along with its victims and perpetrators — has moved into the spotlight. It remained a focus at the start of this school year as students arrived on campuses and the Trump administration announced changes to guidance on Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law.

"Students all across the country are going to take this issue on as one to champion," said Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for student affairs at Rutgers University at New Brunswick in New Jersey. "They don't want us to retrench. They want us to move forward and continue to embrace our commitment around these issues.

"For those people who read political tea leaves, I think they've got it wrong if they think this generation of students is just going to say, 'Hey, okay, that's last year's issue. We've moved on to something else.' I don't think so."

At George Mason University in Fairfax, the work to combat campus sexual assault begins before students arrive in the classroom. At this year's freshman convocation, students heard the university's president talk about the importance of taking care of themselves and one another, said Rose Pascarell, vice president for university life. They also learned about student rights and responsibilities and went through training on how to intervene in situations that appear troubling.

By reaching first-year students, schools can build a foundation of knowledge about the topic, said Samantha Skaller, a master's degree student at McGill University in Montreal who is involved in the "It's On Us" sexual-assault awareness campaign.

"And then your second year, you get to learn more, and your third and fourth year, you get to continue to learn more," she said.

Skaller, who went to Syracuse University as an undergraduate, recalls her freshman experience with sexual-assault prevention education. "We had to do some tutorials about consent, but no one took it seriously. No one watched it," she said.

Skaller didn't watch, either. But twice, she said, she was the victim of rape while at Syracuse. She never reported the allegations to law enforcement, but the second time, she went to the university with a formal Title IX complaint.

The process was draining, and the result was disappointing: The man was found not responsible.

But while at Syracuse, Skaller also became an advocate working to change the campus culture. She saw the It's On Us campaign spread. Students signed pledges. Professors mentioned it in class materials.

"We have a lot of progress to make," she said, "but in five years, I have such a good feeling that the passion is still going to be there and we're still going to be creating small movements of change."

Surveys show how often sexual assault occurs on campuses. A 2015 Association of American Universities study found that more than 20 percent of female undergraduates at prominent universities were the victims of sexual assault or misconduct.

That same year, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey reached a similar conclusion, reporting that 20 percent of current and recent female college students experienced sexual assault.

The Association of American Universities, a group of research universities in the United States and Canada, followed up on its 2015 survey with a report in April that pointed to increased staffing, training and student support.

All the responding schools had changed (or were working to change) education and training for faculty and students in the past three academic years. The report indicated that schools were dedicating more attention to training their campus communities on how to step in during troubling situations.

"There is no magic bullet," the report said, "or one-size-fits-all approach: Universities have undertaken a wide variety of actions including increased and targeted training, greater awareness-building, better coordinated data collection . . . and greater levels of collaboration within institutions and their communities."

In its short time at the institution, for example, Empower AU has already become a point of pride at the school, which was recently lauded for its sexual-assault prevention efforts.

Mickey Irizarry, director of American University's student wellness center, pointed to the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter that laid out guidance for schools on handling sexual-assault complaints as a turning point. At the same time it came out, she said, there was a push from students who had a "desire to hold their university accountable to do this type of programming" and do work around the topic.

"They were asking for more resources, asking for more support, asking for policies and for more transparency," she said.

Julian Williams, vice president for compliance, diversity and ethics at George Mason, called the 2011 guidance a "game changer."

"It spurred colleges and universities to develop what I call a Title IX infrastructure, which means, okay, so how do we do this in a way that recognizes that we want to create a campus that's free from sexual assault, dating violence and stalking," he said.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke on George Mason's campus in September, delivering remarks vowing to replace a "failed system" of campus sexual-assault enforcement. Later that month, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era guidance.

Even with the changes, Pascarell, George Mason's vice president for university life, said she did not expect her institution or others in higher education to backtrack, a sentiment Williams echoed.

"With the advocacy that we've seen and the commitment that institutions have made to their students, they're not going to let us go backward, even if folks wanted to," Williams said. "The cat's out of the bag a bit here, in terms of this being the expectation that students have when they arrive on campus."

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.