Universities foster connections, encourage
leadership roles among LGBTQ students
By Cara McDonough
Campus life at a new college or university can be overwhelming for anyone. Students worry about finding their way to class, or navigating choices in the dining hall, not to mention sharing a small dorm room with a total stranger.
There are potentially bigger challenges, too, like making new friends and establishing a sense of “community” in an unfamiliar place.
For LGBTQ students, getting used to life on campus as a freshman or transferring student may be even more difficult. Meeting other students who identify as LGBTQ, however, can make a big difference. So can seeing these students front and center on campus in leadership and mentoring positions.
That’s why there are initiatives at many Connecticut-based campuses intended to make the transition for LGBTQ students easier, as well as provide ample opportunities for socializing and taking on leadership opportunities. Proponents say these programs help LGBTQ students feel more welcome, ensure a diverse student representation in a variety of campus roles, and provide trusted individuals for new students to turn to when they’re looking for resources, advice – or just a friendly chat.
At Southern Connecticut State University, the SAGE (Sexuality and Gender Equality) Center’s ambassador program is in its fourth year.
The program was built with a larger initiative on campus in mind, says Jenna Retort, assistant director in the Office of Student Conduct and Civic Responsibility: to develop meaningful student employment opportunities, with the goal of students learning transferable skills they can use in their respective fields down the line.
The ambassadors serve as peer educators and resource providers to teach the university about the LGBTQ community. Students in the program help to develop social and educational programs, connect with new and existing students who visit the SAGE Center, serve on panels, and facilitate events, she explains. And the students who fill the roles all have a “deep passion for advocacy.”
“I love doing activist work,” says Hannah Cianciolo, a junior at Southern who recently transferred to the school and is a SAGE ambassador. “So it feels pretty great giving resources to students in need.”
She says that being in the public eye in a helping role is important for other students – LGBTQ and otherwise – to see, perhaps encouraging them to take on similar roles. “It definitely helps people in your community to succeed,” she says.
And, for Cianciolo, being in the program served its larger purpose, too, preparing her for bigger steps down the line. “Working here has pushed me more towards my goal of becoming a gender studies professor,” she says.
Marlena Oliveri, a SAGE Center graduate intern, says watching the program in action illustrates the value of students being role models and resources for other students, which can have an enormously positive effect on new students who identify as LGBTQ.
“I feel like it’s important because it’s peer-to-peer education. I feel like with me, being an intern, there can be a disconnect with other students, but if it [the message] is coming from a student, they may be willing to connect,” she says.
This past spring, the SAGE Center began a new program called “Leaders with Pride.” Unlike the ambassador program, which trains students to fill the ambassador role specifically, Leaders with Pride recruits LGBTQ students for leadership positions that already exist on campus, including at the SAGE Center or leading PRISM meetings. PRISM is an undergraduate club that works towards educational awareness of different sexualities.
“These partnerships were designed to recruit and retain student leaders who identify in the LGBTQ community, because their representation in leadership positions is critical and enriches our community,” says Retort. She says the SAGE Center is looking forward to watching the program grow.
Other universities are making concerted efforts to reach out to the LGBTQ community as well.
Sometimes when you’re new on campus, you simply need a friend who already knows the ropes. That’s the idea behind the University of Connecticut’s F.A.M.I.L.E.E. Mentoring Program, run by the university’s Rainbow Center. The acronym stands for Fostering Academics, Maturity, Independence, Leadership, Empowerment & Excellence; it’s a tall order but the program is up to the task.
The mentoring program is centered around the LGBTQ experience on campus (although no one who takes part is required to identify as LGBTQ or disclose identity) and its purpose is to foster strong ties and a community experience.
The program ensures first-year and transfer students feel welcome and comfortable on campus by matching them with upper-class peers, says Steven Feldman, a graduate assistant at the Rainbow Center, who helps coordinate the mentoring group and helps run graduate and young professional groups.
The mentors are required to have two semesters of experience on campus; be allies to all communities of gender identity, expression and sexuality represented at the Rainbow Center; and it’s recommended that they have a strong grade point average. Mentees are any first-year or transfer students who want to take part.
Mentors and mentees are paired based on applications and meet regularly in the fall to secure their relationship, says Feldman. There also are social events that take place throughout the year, including “F.A.M.I.L.E.E. reunions” where the entire program comes together.
Once they’ve experienced the program, participants are encouraged to take on more leadership roles within it, or otherwise at the Rainbow Center, ensuring there is always a roster of LGBTQ student leaders ready to help out wherever they can.
Feldman says that his own academic studies have included research on the LGBTQ community and higher education, so he finds the work he does at the Rainbow Center particularly intriguing.
“I think that different communities in different colleges face different issues,” he says. “Transitioning to a big university like UConn can be challenging, especially for the LGBTQ community. It can be challenging to find your own community on campus. I think the F.A.M.I.L.E.E. program really helps those students find their community.”
Working on the program and observing it in action is incredibly rewarding, he says.
“To see folks come in for those first weeks of school and want to be part of this speaks to the power of community,” he says. “For me, it’s really empowering to know that a program like this can have an impact here.”
Programs that welcome LGBTQ students on campus, as well as those that prepare them for leadership roles, are particularly important right now, says William J. Mann, the LGBT Center faculty director at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
Mann, who is an author, journalist and community activist, says recent studies indicate that more high school students than ever before are identifying as part of the LBGTQ spectrum, and college campuses need to be ready to serve that growing population.
“It means we need to really be prepared for how to welcome these students and make sure their needs are being addressed, so it’s very important to have programs in place that are relevant to these students’ lives,” he says. “That means that right away, they get involved and know that the campus is a welcoming place for them.”
CCSU has just finished a strategic planning program that will, hopefully, integrate all of the school’s LGBTQ resources on campus, in order to recognize the specific needs of this population, he says. Not only is the population growing, he notes, but it is increasingly becoming less white and less cisgender.
“We need to have people on campus that reflect this changing demographic, and we need to make sure these students see themselves reflected in the leadership,” he says. “And these students themselves need to become part of the leadership.”