Coming out on campus
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Jake Christensen recalls that he was not even comfortable identifying as a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community when he first visited the University of Iowa campus in the spring of 2005 as a prospective student.
“Once I was on campus as a student though, I was finally able to become comfortable with that part of myself without worrying about repercussions or negative reactions that I felt I would face in my hometown,” says Christensen, who is from Audubon, Iowa.
Seven years later, Christensen is able to connect incoming LGBT students to resources at the UI as a senior admission counselor in the UI Office of Admissions.
Christensen says he was fortunate to be invited by UI administration to complete the UI's Campus Pride Index. The index is offered to campuses across the country free of charge by Campus Pride, the nation’s only benchmarking tool that evaluates campus climate in terms of LGBT-friendliness to guide institutions in creating a safer environment on their campuses.
“Jake’s dedication and commitment to LGBT young people is evident in his actions and advocacy," says Campus Pride Executive Director Shane Windmeyer. "Campus Pride is proud to have Jake as one of our national volunteers working as the coordinator of our LGBT-friendly college fair program. He understands what LGBT young adults need to feel welcome and safe on campus.”
During the fall of 2010, the opportunity for students to identify sexual or gender identity on the UI application for admission began to evolve. As a result of a collaborative effort between the Office of Admissions, the UI Division of Student Life, and the UI Chief Diversity Office, prospective students will now have the option to identify their sexual or gender identity when applying to the UI. (See a related story now.uiowa.edu/2012/11/campus-pride.)
When and why did you join the UI Office of Admissions?
After graduating in July of 2010 with degrees in German and religious studies, I joined the UI Office of Admissions that fall. I had been a Campus Tour Guide from my sophomore year until I graduated, and the summer following my senior year I worked as a student adviser for Orientation Services. Both of these positions helped me develop a knack for working with prospective and incoming students. These were great opportunities, and I thought working in Admissions as a professional would allow me to continue to share my experiences with prospective students while promoting the UI.
What does your day-to-day work look like in your current position as a senior admission counselor?
Admission counselors are generalists, and in the same sense they’re expected to know a fair amount of information about each of Iowa’s 100-plus majors. A normal day might involve meetings with prospective students and their families, presenting to large groups, answering phone calls, and responding to admissions emails.
My position requires a fair amount of traveling. My assigned territory is northwest Iowa and Nebraska, plus travel to Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York City. I’m on the road for about six weeks each year. Since the end of September, I’ve driven almost 10,000 miles and flown over 8,000 miles to meet with students at high schools, represent the UI at some Campus Pride’s LGBT-friendly college fairs the past few years, including locations such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas, in addition to my territorial responsibilities. I am now also the volunteer coordinator of the Campus Pride program. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that no day is a “typical” day. The field itself can be wildly unpredictable, but I’m lucky to have the opportunity to meet and connect with people from all walks of life, which is what makes it an interesting career.
What role did you play in the UI deciding to add the optional question to the application for admission for students identifying either their sexual orientation and/or gender identity?
When I started working in Admissions in September 2010, I was offered a seat on the Student Success Team-Diversity Recruitment Committee, which is comprised of a group of staff from across campus that seeks to find ways to promote and bring diversity to campus.
The Admissions Office has worked extensively to evolve in the way of its definition of diversity to incorporate a variety of populations, including being a first-generation college student, identifying as LGBT, and belonging to a minority group. While the UI had made strides in recognizing this diversity on campus for the LGBT population represented by students, faculty, and staff, I wondered why this wasn’t equally reflected in our admission policies and procedures. This led to my interest in and subsequent charge to oversee the completion of the UI’s Campus Pride Index. After beginning that project, I wrote a proposal in support of dedicated admissions recruitment efforts specific to LGBT prospective students, which resulted in the UI’s participation in Campus Pride’s LGBT-College Fair program, and my work with that organization’s Executive Director, Shane Windmeyer. Having worked with Elmhurst College as they became the first post-secondary institution in the nation to ask an LGBT identity question on their application for admission, Shane expressed his interest of working with a larger research institution to add a similar question to their materials.
Through this initial conversation, I was able to put Shane in contact with Emil Rinderspacher, the director of admissions, who was able to reintroduce an earlier discussion about adding a sexual orientation and gender identity question to UI administration. This happened to occur at the same time Admissions was developing a new admissions system through MAUI that would allow the university to give applicants the option to identify their gender identity or sexual orientation. This was really a conversation that had been going on for a number of years, and it just so happened that I asked about it at a time that proved to be ideal in seeing this long-term institutional goal realized.
The UI administration has had a long-standing desire to make this change, and I’m thankful that they were able to implement it in a thoughtful, yet deliberate way that is a continuation of this institution’s commitment to setting the trend that others will follow.
You identify as a member of the LGBT community—what was your experience as a student on campus, and what helped contribute to your success as a student who identified as a member of a diverse population?
I come from a small town in western Iowa that really emphasized homogeneity throughout my upbringing. Being different in any sense, which included how you dress, your beliefs, your sexuality, really wasn’t an option if you wanted to fit in. I came to the UI as a means of escaping that culture, without really knowing or understanding how open and accepting it would be here.
As a student, I noticed a lot of visibility in terms of the UI’s diversity initiatives, policies, and events. There were various festivals such as the Cultural Diversity Festival and Coming Out Day on the Pentacrest, not to mention the university’s very prominent and extremely inclusive nondiscrimination policy, and the fact that we have an LGBT Resource Center right on campus. No matter how each of us identifies, every member of the UI community benefits when he or she is part of a campus culture that is open and accepting of everyone; and the visibility of these events, policies, and resources is an integral part of promoting that at the UI.
Why do you think it is important for this option to be on applications, and how will it help students be more successful?
It’s important for students to see that schools recognize a broad spectrum of diversity. Though not all students will choose to self-identify through the application, it at the very least gives the LGBT community the option to stand up and be counted as an important part of a diverse group of students. To look at the UI and see that the institution acknowledges all forms of diversity helps everyone feel included. Even if a student who doesn’t identify as LGBT, but who might feel different or unaccepted where they grew up, can see the new questions and recognize that the UI has a demonstrated, visible commitment to diversity in all forms, which simultaneously sets a very important precedent for the respect of all individuals on our campus.
Not only does this new option on the application acknowledge this population, but it provides the UI the opportunity to connect students with resources on campus and in the community specific to that population. What seems like a simple, or what I’m sure some will say unnecessary or inappropriate question, is an affirmation of that student in terms of seeing that he, she, or they is recognized and that the diversity represented is valued by the UI.