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Chris Bieri, Grand Forks Herald , Published May 18 2012

Women’s self-defense course in high demand in Oil Patch

GRAND FORKS - It didn’t take long for 45-year-old Jane Peterson to put her self-defense training into practice.

Peterson, who lives in Grand Forks, was driving toward her family farm near Tioga in the midst of the Oil Patch in August 2011 when she got some unwanted company.

A man in his mid-twenties in a silver vehicle with Texas plates paced her, driving at the same speed and looking over at her. When she pulled off onto a gravel road to take some pictures, he made a U-turn on the highway and followed her.

He started asking questions, but soon left when she didn’t respond.

While she didn’t need to use the physical skills she learned a few months before in the self-defense class taught at UND, Peterson said the heightened awareness the class taught saved her.

“I do credit it for saving my life,” she said. “If I didn’t have those skills it would have been different.”

It’s called IMPACT, a 12-hour course that teaches women how to fight off assailants. Volunteers in padded suits actually simulate assaults, customizing their moves based on different women’s weak points.

Kay Mendick, director of the UND Women’s Center and an IMPACT instructor, said the college courses always fill up quickly, but recently there has been an uptick in outside interest from the Oil Patch.

“We’ve had a lot of requests from the western part of the state, wanting us to come out there,” she said.

Incidents such as the kidnapping and murder of Sidney, Mont., teacher Sherry Arnold in January always bring a higher level of awareness to self defense for women, she said.

The course has been offered at UND since fall 2000 and can be taken for credit by female students. Mendick said there was also a surge in interest in the course following the kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin from a Columbia Mall parking lot in fall 2003.

Mendick said Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, has attended a class graduation where the students display their newly learned methods.

She also said Beth Stenehjem, wife of North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, took the course in Grand Forks. Stenehjem was impressed, and helped spearhead an effort to bring the course to Bismarck.

“It’s a very hands-on look at how violence affects people,” Mendick said. “It’s not women against men. It’s women and men against violence.”

The program started in the 1970s, and Mendick said was a forerunner of its kind because it was designed for women.

“It looked at where women’s strengths lie” she said. The success of the program is in its realism and intensity, she said.

The women are put in roles where they are verbally and physically abused by male instructors acting as assailants in a padded suit and protective mask. The instructors don’t stop the attack until they are physically beaten.

“It’s so realistic and so hands on,” Mendick said. “They have to feel a knockout blow. Until they get that, the fight is on.”

Paul Olson has been a male trainer since 2003 and is co-director of the program with Mendick. He’s one of five male instructors in the program and they try to have two to three in each class.

Hundreds of times, he has draped himself with the nearly 40 pounds of customized equipment and padding to attack the women in the classes.

Cursing, screaming and abusing the women for hours isn’t easy, physically or mentally, but he said the ends justify the means. “What you get as a reward — they’re triumphant,” he said.

Olson said the training offers the students preparation for what would be the most difficult possible scenario.

The idea of the class is that practice makes perfect, someone with experience being attacked will be able to react appropriately in a real situation.

“It’s built on muscle memory and state-dependent learning,” Mendick said.

The class isn’t only about the physical side of self-defense.

“Physical fighting is the last resort,” Mendick said. “We want women to know how to fight so they don’t have to. We want to give them the core belief that they are worth protecting.”

UND is the only university in the nation to offer IMPACT for credit on a year round basis, but it isn’t only offered to UND students. Anyone from any age group is eligible for the class.

The next round of courses will be subsidized with $3,000 raised by the Red River Valley Motorcyclists, an effort one of its members, Jane Peterson, spearheaded.

How to take IMPACT class: Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UND, an adult learning program, is offering the course starting May 29. Each course costs $55 for OLLI members, $75 for UND students and faculty and $90 for women not affiliated with either organization. Go to olli.und.edu or call (800) CALL UND, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.