Lady Gaga was joined by sexual assault survivors for her performance of Best Original Song nominee, "Til It Happens To You" during the Academy Awards

By Rose Minutaglio and Lindsay Kimble
Updated February 29, 2016 01:35 PM
Kevin Winter/Getty

Lady Gaga‘s 2016 Oscars performance was much more than entertainment.

To the thousands of sexual assault victims across the country, and those who took the stage with the pop star, Gaga’s rendition of Best Original Song nominee "Til It Happens to You", which she wrote with songwriter Diane Warren for the documentary, The Hunting Ground, was a chance to share their story.

“[Gaga] told us that she thought people in the audience may feel comfortable now, because there might have been people in that audience – or who were watching on TV – that have been assaulted and we hope to give them the courage to be strong,” says Andrea L. Pino, the director of policy and support for End Rape on Campus, a survivor and one of the women who took the Dolby Theatre stage. “A lot of people watching that have dealt with this, we hope are now free to be vulnerable.”

Pino, 24, and Annie E. Clark, the executive director of End Rape on Campus, tell PEOPLE that planning and executing the performance was “very emotional.”

“Most of these people had not come out as survivors yet,” Clark, who was sexually assaulted during her college undergraduate years, says. “Some people had told a few close friends, maybe family, but had never done intense media, and weren’t in the film. It was really awesome because there was such of a mix of experiences of people.”

She adds, “We bonded quickly. It was amazing. To have the entire production. Diane [Warren] and Gaga gifted it, and they are both public survivors. It was coming completely full circle.”

Clark and Pino’s organization, EROC, works to end campus sexual violence by providing support for survivors, as well as prevention through education and policy reform at all levels.

Both women were featured in The Hunting Ground, the documentary on campus rape for which Gaga’s song was written.

“She’s been so vulnerable with her song,” Pino says. “It’s a very personal song with her. Seeing that pain that she had to go through when she performs the song was invaluable.”

Clark says the survivors, who gathered around Gaga on the stage, holding hands and baring their arms, which were adorned with phrases of empowerment, began rehearsing for the appearance last Thursday.

“We worked with Gaga’s choreographer and Gaga also talked to us and spoke to us,” Clark explains. “We had a really wonderful time she was so genuine and had some really honest, powerful and emotional conversations during the rehearsal and during the live performance.”

Clark says it was “powerful” to write “Survivor” and “I Believe You,” on each other’s arms and share stories backstage, calling the experience “very surreal.”

“After the performance, when Brie Larson hugged every single person – that was incredibly powerful,” Pino shares. “The fact that she stood up and waited for more than five minutes and said, ‘Thank you, so much’ considering that she plays a survivor, I’m hoping that it shows that Hollywood will be a little more vocal about this.”

She continues, “Seeing her standing, Kate Winslet standing, Leo, Rachel McAdams all standing after the performance was so moving to all of us. Most of us were crying onstage.”

Vice President Joe Biden, who introduced the performance, also stayed and talked one on one with the group, Clark reveals, saying, “Some of us talked specifics with him.”

Both women are grateful for the experience, and Clark says the group and Gaga “helped each other through that performance.”

“It was stronger because she was there for us and we were there for her,” Clark says. “It wouldn’t have been as powerful without that truly deep connection between us.”