It’s nearly impossible to miss Emma Sulkowicz on campus. While most students walk around with backpacks or books, the Columbia University senior carries a twin-size dorm room mattress everywhere she goes.
It’s her way of protesting the way the Ivy League school handles sexual assaults on campus.
Sulkowicz, 21, claims she was assaulted the first day of her sophomore year, but the case against her alleged rapist was dismissed.
“I will be carrying this dorm room mattress with me everywhere I go for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist,” the visual arts major says in a video that is part of her senior thesis. “I feel like I carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then."
Sulkowicz is among 23 students who filed a federal complaint earlier this year against Columbia University for mishandling sexual assault cases. The students accuse the school of being too lenient with alleged offenders and of discouraging victims from reporting assaults.
Columbia University did not respond to an NBC request for comment but did issue a statement to the New York Daily News.
"The university respects the choice of any member of our community to peacefully express personal or political views on this and other issues," the school said. "At the same time, the university is committed to protecting the privacy of students participating in gender-based misconduct proceedings." It then declined to comment on any specific cases saying "these matters are extremely sensitive and we do not want to deter survivors from reporting them."
One in five women are raped or sexually assaulted in college, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The federal government is currently investigating several dozen universities for their handling sexual assault cases, a problem so widespread that the White House assembled a task force earlier this year to examine the issue.
Sulkowicz said she will continue to carry the mattress until her alleged assailant is expelled or withdraws from the school. Until then, she hopes her activism art will encourage others to take a stand.
"I've personally been so amazed by how much change has happened already in the past year that I've become an activist and I think there's a whole movement starting and I think that's really amazing," she told MSNBC's Ronan Farrow.