Higher Education/Student Affairs is a unique field, where changes in the US often impact the affairs within an institution. What I mean by this is that, while communities and towns may not see much change over a span in time (aside from population growth or decay), higher education changes tremendously. With these changes, we must ask ourselves if we’re prepared to take on these changes.
In the 1960’s, college student leaders across the nation aimed to keep national trends consistent with higher education, so there was an influx of students of color attending predominately white institutions. Into the 80’s and 90’s, students from other diverse backgrounds (religious or sexual orientation) became more prominent within these institutions. Heading into the new century, student from mixed races began to be more recognized. Part of this was a general recognition of these populations, while part was an overall acceptance. As we head into a newer day in age, newer populations/identities continue to emerge, but what are we doing to welcome this change?
Three populations/identities that I would like to highlight that have gotten increasingly more present include: trans*, bi/multi-racial, and non gender-binary students.
When thinking about these students, one size fits all mindset doesn’t work. Not only does it alienate them as people, but tends to allow for us to invalidate their experiences. Below are a few steps to take when working with these students. Keep in mind that many of these terms have been normalized and associated with certain populations of people.
1. Ask the student their preferred gender pronoun. Often, normalized gender pronouns are associated with a certain gender that don’t fit with a student’s identity and personal preference. For example, calling someone who is gender non-conforming “her or him” may be inaccurate and offensive. Also, calling someone who is trans* sir, him, or he when they prefer traditional female pronouns is also wrong.
2. Watch the gendered language you use. Sometimes, this is hard to avoid because everyone uses this language, but if we’re truly wanting to be inclusive of our students, it is important to remember. For example, going into a room and saying “you guys” in a group of students with mixed gender-identities is disregarding those who identify outside of the male identity.
3. Expand your vocabulary. Language is a way to help us simplify and understand certain ideas, experiences, or concepts. As professionals, we’ve learned terms like racism, privilege, inclusion, diversity, or acceptance, but we need to know the language that for the wide array of identities. We should know what being cisgender, pansexual, asexual, or that some prefer the spelling of womyn vs. women. What about gender-fluid, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, bigender, or agender. We need to ensure we’re catering to all of our students!
4. Micro-aggressions. These are those subtle examples of oppressions that students tend to deal with on a daily basis. This often establishes an otherness complex within their experience making it difficult to identify with others. As professionals, asking the right questions or saying the right things becomes an important part of the profession. It is also important to accept criticism if someone calls us out for doing so.
5. Micro/Macro changes at the Institution. These changes are the ones that students can initial see or feel. This may include: gender-inclusive restrooms, progressive curfew policies, surveys and applications with responses reflecting these identities, or programming/services specifically related to these students. There’s a difference between tolerance and acceptance and I feel that we often get these lines blurred. Tolerance may be having a section titled “Other” on a survey or applications, while acceptance is including multiple gender-identity options on the application. You can rid students of the “otherness” if you continue to recognize their identity as not the standard.
6. Institutional Culture. When we’re thinking about providing the best possible services and experiences for these students, simply changing policies or making a few changes doesn’t impact the full experience. While these students appreciate having gender inclusive/neutral restrooms, it doesn’t stop from other students harassing these students or vandalizing the restrooms with hate speech. As professionals, it is our job to educate the institutional community about these students. If we aren’t educating students and attempting to change the climate of the institution, our students are still going to have bad experiences at the institution.
As we move forward, and as these identities become more widely accepted or experienced, let’s restore our inclusive minds and ensure that these students feel welcome before they get to our campuses and while they’re here. The life-expectancy rate for trans* people of color is comparable to that of the least developed countries (30-35 years). What can we do as social justice advocates to impact their experience at the institution and to educate the community as a whole. How are we are we following that model of awareness, knowledge, skills, and action. How are we using the guiding principles of engaging and assessing student needs so that we can intervene. And how do we evaluate our work/progess to ensure that what we’re doing is working?
> BONUS <
Podcast With Dean Kenneth Elmore on Student Engagement Efforts