LGBTQ Student Success in Higher Ed: Collaborating with Diverse Practitioners

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by Rebecca Dolinsky and Heather McCambly

Heather McCambly

Heather McCambly

Earlier this spring, we co-presented at the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) Diversity, Learning, and Student Success conference on LGBTQ student success in higher education, and followed up our presentation with the first of two articles in Diverse. In our first article, we provided evidence and anecdotes about campus climates for LGBTQ students and linked familiar student support frameworks to students’ experiences specific to gender and sexual identities. This discussion broadens the scope of what it means to be underserved in higher education. Indeed, for many faculty and campus practitioners, the notion of LGBTQ student success is underexplored, especially when we consider the multitude of LGBTQ student experiences throughout the different types of educational sectors.

Mindful of the current gap in the student success literature on this issue, we built opportunities into the session not only to share from our own campus experiences, but also to capture the experiences of the diverse educators assembled from all across the country ― session participants were passionate on the topic of LGBTQ student success. After setting the stage for this discussion, we prompted session participants with two sets of questions. In the first set of questions, we asked participants:

  • What matters to LGBTQ student success on your campus? Are LGBTQ-relevant issues visible? Are courses that explore LGBTQ issues and experiences offered? If so, who teaches those courses?
050714_Rebecca_Dolinsky

Rebeca Dolinksy

We aimed here to understand the broad range of campus climates represented in the session room. Campus climate can be defined as “the cumulative attitudes, behaviors, and standards of employees and students concerning access for, inclusion of, and level of respect for individual and group needs, abilities, and potential” (Rankin 2005, p. 17). Campus climate is additionally affected by the “organizational policies and practices” (Reason 2013, p. 41) that frame the acceptable behaviors, actions, and practices that characterize LGBTQ student experiences on a given campus. We were also seeking to gather participants’ existing knowledge about how student success practices connect to students’ sexual or gender identities on their campuses.

Finally, we wanted to discuss the connection between the experiences of contingent faculty members with those of underserved students. As the new faculty majority, non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty members are teaching an increasing number of historically underserved student groups in higher education—students who are first-generation, racial or ethnic minority, low-income, LGBTQ, or any of these identities simultaneously. Given that engagement, validation, and a sense of safety on campus are essential conditions to student success, we argue that institutions must recognize and include NTT faculty in conversations, trainings, and initiatives for the success of historically underserved students (LGBTQ among them).

In response, participants cited many practices, including forums for open dialogue on campus; the presence of “out” campus advocates and allies among both student support and faculty on campus; an emotionally and physically safe campus environment; scholarly engagement with issues of sexuality and gender studies; inclusion in mentoring programs or opportunities; a physical space in which to meet and find support; and opportunities for faculty and staff to develop a stronger understanding of how and why gender affects the student experience, and how they might better support the success of LGBTQ students. Participants thought it particularly important to recognize students’ intersectional identities (sexualities, genders, races, ethnicities, religions, etc.) including the experiences of transgender students in relation to cisgender (those who identify with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth) students. Participants recommended integrating learning about sexuality and gender into general diversity programming within and outside of the curriculum.

Some participants discussed their struggle at a number of private, religious colleges without a designated office to support LGBTQ students or any sexuality-specific courses to build a campus community conscious of students’ sexuality. Several participants observed that, if present, the majority of support and attention to sexuality on campus is more “social” in nature and facilitated by student affairs alone, a fact that may build a sense of social, but not academic engagement with issues of sexuality on campus. At campuses that did offer sexuality-specific courses, many noted that such themes were only found in Gender or Women’s Studies departments or upper-level seminars, without any attention in “mainstream” or general education courses. Participants did not speak a great deal to the number of topical courses that were taught by NTT faculty in relation to gender and sexuality, or if they were recognized in any way for their support of LGBTQ students, student groups, or campus initiatives. This knowledge is critical for diversity and equity concerns on campus in relation to student success and in recognition of the efforts of NTT faculty.

In the second set of questions, we asked participants:

  • Have you and/or your colleagues experienced any challenges on your campus related to LGBTQ student success? Is there any relationship between these challenges and institutional type?

Here we were trying to identify the barriers that the campus practitioners from various institutional sectors routinely encountered in their efforts to support LGBTQ students. Several participants generally discussed the hostile environments that administrators, faculty, and/or staff created at their campuses through, for example, homophobic comments made by professors in the classroom, “risk-averse” administrators at private, religious institutions, or non-existent discussions about LGBTQ student success at the academic and social levels. Several session participants described a particular lack of support for transgender students on their campuses. For instance, one participant mentioned the “administrative challenges” that transgender students face during the transition process, including the adoption of gender-specific or gender-neutral pronouns while transitioning. A couple of session participants described the institutionally-held belief that their respective campuses were “beyond” the diversity issue. Other participants pushed for the collection of data on LGBTQ students’ retention, persistence, and success (including student success efforts, such as high-impact practices and innovative teaching methods).

Our participants’ comments illustrated that, as a group, we know a great deal about what students need — to feel safe, validated, and accepted, and to see their own identities and experiences reflected in their curriculum and co-curricular activities. In order to put a spotlight on improving LGBTQ student success, we asked participants:

  • How can campus practice intentionally create academic and social engagement that addresses specific concerns of the intersectional LGBTQ student experience?

In order to begin this discussion, participants acknowledged the need to reject the heteronormative assumption that sexuality is irrelevant to educational outcomes. All students experience inclusion or exclusion directly or indirectly based on their unique, intersectional identity. What happens in and out of the classroom on campus helps create pathways for LGBTQ student engagement and, thus, their opportunities to succeed and persist in college. Given the current political and social climate, and so-called traditional values, students’ sexual and gender identities will absolutely factor into how they experience campus climate, social connections with their peers, faculty, and staff, and their engagement with academic work.

Exploring this at a deeper level, we worked through a set of descriptive, experiential statements written from the potential perspectives of LGBTQ students and asked our participants to discuss and generate practices or policies that would create academic and social engagement for LGBTQ students in the campus environment. We will use a similar strategy in our upcoming Diverse webinar and provide practitioner-generated practices, as well as those driven by the literature, on supporting student success through holistic connections with their identify formation processes. Please join us on August 6th to learn more about the specific practices, and work with us to explore more deeply the connection between sexuality, gender identity, and the success of your students, whether LGBTQ or their allies.

Rebecca Dolinsky is a sociologist by training and a former contingent faculty member who recently taught courses on gender and sexuality at a private, Jesuit institution. Heather McCambly comes from a student affairs and educational policy background and recently worked in academic support with diverse student groups on campus. They are also colleagues at AAC&U, and work programmatically on issues related to general education, equity, assessment, and policy.

To learn more, join Rebecca and Heather on the August 6th Diverse Webinar, Understanding LGBTQ Student Success: A Toolkit for Expanding Campus Practice. Register now.

Resources:

Jaeger, A. J. 2008. “Contingent Faculty and Student Outcomes.” Academe 94 (6): 42-43.

Rankin, S. R. 2005. “Campus Climates for Sexual Minorities.” New Directions for Student Services 111 (Fall): 17-23.

Reason, R. D. 2013. “Creating and Assessing Campus Climates that Support Personal and Social Responsibility.” Liberal Education (Winter): 38-43.

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