From Orientation to Graduation, PSU Embraces Inclusion
Diversity as a cultural buzzword often refers to race and ethnicity. But it is equally important to remember that diversity extends to many other factors, including gender, age, religion, culture, economic status, ability, and sexual orientation.
Plymouth State University may not seem, at first glance, like the image of diversity. But when you start talking with students, faculty, and staff, you’ll discover there is more to this picture than meets the eye.
Whether it’s system-wide programs to help students adjust to the academic rigors and expectations of college life (41 percent of PSU students are the first in their families to attend college), work opportunities and need- and merit-based scholarships for students, mental health services, individualized support for students with disabilities, a global education resource office, or a resource and support center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (LGBTQ+) students, Plymouth State University pays close attention to the needs of all students.
In this article, we will focus on the powerful ways PSU supports its LGBTQ+ population in becoming happy, successful citizens of the world. For many LGBTQ+ youth, college gives a first glimmer that, to quote the video phenomenon, “it gets better.”
President’s Commission on Diversity
As a student-centered institution, PSU’s mission is to prepare students for life in a pluralistic world, helping them gain a global perspective. Plymouth State actively pursues its intention of being “a more vibrant, inclusive, and multicultural community,” as President Sara Jayne Steen says. Reflecting this charge, the President’s Commission on Diversity (PCD) was established to work with and support other campus groups in advancing the University’s goals for diversity. Priorities include developing curricula, assessing campus-wide policies and programs, and improving access to rich and holistic academic and student development programs.
According to co-chairs Megan Birch and Whitney Howarth, the PCD has contributed financially to student programming such as Black History Month and International Week, as well as student groups, such as the World Language Society and the Nicaragua Club. Members of the PCD have facilitated professional development workshops related to global and multicultural education, as well as coordinated and advised student groups, including the Model UN. In terms of community outreach, members of the PCD have participated in events held at the Plymouth United Congregational Church and the Independent Lens Community Cinema, among others.
One project PCD members have been working on is a survey to study student and faculty perceptions of diversity as they relate to safety and an overall welcoming climate. The results will be valuable stepping stones for Plymouth State’s continuing commitment to make a safe and welcoming environment for students.
One of the most visible ways PSU has demonstrated its support for all students can be found in PSU’s contribution to the worldwide video project, It Gets Better. Aimed at giving hope to young people who may be facing harassment or rejection from others because of their sexual orientation, the project was initiated in 2010 by author and gay rights activist Dan Savage. PSU Professor of Applied Linguistics James Whiting organized production of Plymouth State’s video featuring faculty and staff members sharing their stories and reminding young people that they are not alone. “I hope this video sends a powerful message to queer youth, and perhaps future students, about Plymouth State as a welcoming and inclusive community, and as a campus with a significant presence of queer and allied faculty and staff who care about our youth,” says Whiting.
The SAGE Center
The SAGE (Sexuality, Anti-Violence, Gender, and Equality) Center ensures that the University offers an inclusive and affirming climate for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning students. “First and foremost,” says SAGE Center Director Delilah Smith, “we’re a resource center and a safe space for our students.” Some of the services SAGE offers include one-to-one short-term crisis counseling, campus education and outreach, support for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors in close collaboration with the local crisis center, and looking at equality as a whole on campus. “I like to call it a social justice center,” Smith says. “More and more we’re working with students of different races, cultures. We meet with students, making sure they’re connected to supportive places on campus.”
Smith says students often share their personal stories about how SAGE and other groups on campus were the deciding factor when they were choosing where to go to college. “The messages I hear from students, especially our LGBT students,” Smith says, “are that they came to PSU because there was a resource center. A lot of universities don’t have a specific center for LGBT students, so they seek it out and come here because of that.” Smith also hears from many students about the rainbow flag (symbolizing diversity and inclusiveness in the LGBTQ+ community) hanging prominently in the HUB lobby. As a high school senior, Janelle Sprague ’09 toured the PSU campus. The moment she walked into the HUB, she says, “I noticed the flag and thought, this is it. This is the college I want to go to. That flag spoke a million words about the campus’s tolerance, acceptance, and opportunities for me.” She enrolled the following fall and was never disappointed in her initial expectations. “It was amazing that not only were students actively educating people and providing support and social outlets, but faculty on campus really reached out to us,” Sprague says. “They involved themselves with our activities, events, and fundraisers, and many asked us to speak in their classrooms.”
For alumna Karen Munz ’06, ’08G, it was this active support of faculty, staff, and campus organizations that transformed her college experience. “I started as a student who easily blended into the crowd without a voice and without spirit,” Munz says. She was welcomed into the LGBTQ+ community, speaking on discussion panels and participating in gay-straight alliance activities. “Being able to discuss LGBTQ issues and joys with other people helped me gain a sense of pride and peace in who I was then and who I am now,” Munz says. “I credit Plymouth State for its LGBTQ awareness and for helping me become a stronger person.”
In the spring of 2011, professor of education Trish Lindberg produced an original musical for college-aged audiences called Transitions. The show, performed by student actors from PSU’s performance company, TIGER (Theatre Integrating Guidance, Education, and Responsibility), is based entirely on writings by Plymouth State students, and is about the changes and challenges young people experience when they go away to college. The positive message is in how community and helping each other enable students to overcome academic struggles, bullying, peer pressure, and isolation. “I hope the audience leaves feeling empowered, knowing that they’re not alone, that there are people to help, and that it’s important to celebrate differences,” says Lindberg, who is planning to take Transitions on the road to other universities, and even to high schools.
Another way Plymouth State demonstrates that it is a supportive environment is by identifying Safe Zones. A Safe Zone is a place an LGBTQ+ student can feel free to seek advice or understanding, or just be comfortable to be her- or himself. Individuals seeking Safe Zone status for their work space receive specialized training from SAGE in appropriate ways to support the LGBTQ+ population. These trainings, which occur on campuses throughout the country, are designed with the intention of creating a network of professionals that LGBTQ+ students know are safe to talk to about any concerns they might have, from harassment to family issues to relationships.
Along with a growing number of universities around the country, each spring Plymouth State honors LGBTQ+ students with “Lavender Graduation.” In this special ceremony, members of the community come together to celebrate the accomplishments of graduates, with particular recognition for the ways in which sexuality and gender have influenced their paths toward graduation. Trevor Chandler ’09, Human Rights Campaign field organizer, was the speaker at the 2011 Lavender Graduation. He addressed students, faculty, and guests with a passionate entreaty for vigilance and action on the part of LGBTQ+ youth, reminding them that tolerance is not the goal, acceptance is. “We assume that their silence is our victory,” Chandler said. “But bias is there.” He praised PSU for not being afraid to stand up for what’s right. “Confront, debate, make it public,” he said. “Plymouth State has done this so well.”
Emilie Coulter is a publications writer and editor in PSU’s Office of Public Relations.