Gabrielle Union knows the value of a sturdy support system. But she also knows that not everyone has one.
She made this point at Monday night’s 11th Annual Night of Opportunity Gala held in New York City for The Opportunity Network, a nonprofit that works with students from historically and systematically underrepresented communities achieve their college and career goals.
Union, 45, was an honoree at the event, and in her acceptance speech, she spoke about expanding the idea of what a support system can be. She explained that she learned the hard way that “your people” are not always who you thought they would be. She referenced the time she was raped as a sophomore in college.
“When I was raped at gunpoint, one of the most lonely and debilitating experiences of my life, I had to redefine what it meant to be a part of a community because my ‘people’ didn’t have a ton of experience with rape survivors,” the Being Mary Jane star and producer said to Cipriani’s packed but silent dining room. “So I had to expand my idea of what and who my people were. I needed a different kind of support. I needed different opportunities, opportunities to heal and then the ability to want to continue living.”
The summer before starting her sophomore year of college at UCLA, the actress was raped at gunpoint by a stranger in the Payless store where she worked.
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But that wasn’t the first time she realized she needed “different” opportunities.
“When I was at UCLA, a lot of the kids I was at school with, their parents got them internships and their parents had jobs lined up for them or they took over the family business,” she explained to PEOPLE. “I don’t come from a family like that, so I relied on other people reaching out to me and saying, ‘No, no, there’re internships that you can get for college credit or for a low stipend.’”
She ended up with an internship in the entertainment industry, “I used to call in appointments for Jessica Biel and Hayden Panettiere,” she said in her speech.
“I didn’t have the same opportunities as my classmates. I had the same grades, I just didn’t have the same opportunity,” she shared. “So somebody recognized that and said, ‘Okay, here’s this girl, she’s trying her butt off, but the playing field’s not level, and we could just tell her to just keep trying harder and harder, but the reality is until somebody actually gives you an opportunity, it’s sometimes hard to create one.’”
She feels lucky to have had people steer her “in the right direction,” which is why she supports organizations like The Opportunity Network: “I’m just trying to help steer other people in the right direction.”
The lesson she wants to bestow upon the students in The Opportunity Network is “first to acknowledge that, no, the playing field isn’t equal, it’s never been equal,” she told PEOPLE. “You are right to feel that you haven’t been given all the same opportunities as your peers or some of the other kids out there, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the road for you.”
The celebrated actress, author, designer and activist is a prime example of that.
“Through programs like the one we are celebrating here and so many others, we are recognizing that. We’re not going to sweep it under the rug, we’re not going to turn a blind eye to it to just tell you to just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” Union promised. “We know that there’s a lot more to it and we’re going to try to address all of the issues.”