Graduate interns, peer volunteers to oversee programming; openly gay administrator hopes initiative will bring school ‘into 21st century’
ARLINGTON — The University of Texas at Arlington will further its efforts this summer to bring informative, educational and recreational programs and activities to the college’s LGBT community.
An LGBTQA and gender identity task force was created in February and began assessing the school’s current programs, and looking at possible ways to improve the campus atmosphere for the community and its allies, said Frank Lamas, UTA’s vice president for student affairs.
Lamas, who initiated the task force, said he began working at UTA seven years ago and reviewed all the programming available to students. When he asked about the LGBT community, he learned not much was being done.
More programming and education began with the creation of the Safe Zone program three years ago. The program educates students and staff members on diversity, and provides LGBT students with a list of on-campus resources and places they can go to talk while feeling comfortable, Lamas said.
The Safe Zone, along with a campus GSA, counseling services and other programs, offers a variety of outlets. But Lamas said during discussions with students in the last few years, the need for the university to do more has been brought up.
“Over time some of the students felt that what we were doing was fine, but they needed more and wanted more,” he said. “I had concerns that we weren’t doing enough to support these students from the feedback I was getting.”
The nine-member task force brought faculty, staff and students together to discuss what UTA is doing and what it could add. The task force produced four recommendations to help expand current programming and create new endeavors, which Lamas said were “a very good starting point.”
The recommendations included adding two graduate interns to supervise LGBT programs, as well as several peer volunteers, and additional funding for programs and the Safe Zone initiative.
Charity Stutzman, a co-chair of the task force who serves as coordinator for UTA’s Violence Prevention and Student Intervention, said the recommendations were important because they suggested that two interns take the lead on the program changes, and that five volunteers would serve as a peer team to speak as advocates at events and help foster a safe and welcoming community.
As for programming, Stutzman said that Diversity Week and the Safe Zone initiative have brought about awareness and inclusiveness, but the addition of a Pride Week, as well as networking events and campus observances of more national events, are also needed. A desire to bring in speakers on various topics is also a part of the possible programming.
Lamas brought the recommendations to the student allocation committee in April. Out of the committee’s $54,000 annual budget to fund student affairs and other groups, $30,000 was allocated to the initiative, with Lamas putting in the additional $6,000 from his budget.
“I was hoping the committee would not only fund it because it was the right thing to do, but to make a statement,” he said. “When it’s something from students, it makes a statement that they thought this is important.”
He said another $6,000 was funded from his budget to jumpstart the planning in the summer.
John Morris was selected as the graduate intern for the summer, starting June 1 and working with the peer group through August to plan fall programming. He said an additional intern will start then, so two will work together in the fall and spring semesters.
Morris is studying social work and said he applied for the position to help provide people with resources and events to learn about themselves and their identities, something he said he didn’t have when he came out at 16.
Programs Morris would like to see range from movie nights to cultural events highlighting views of LGBT people among different cultures and maybe even a drag show. The first event will take place during Welcome Week in the fall, he said.
While the planning has not officially begun, Morris said he is already excited with the growth that UTA is making by funding future LGBT programming.
“I think it’s wonderful for a major school like UT-Arlington to take such a dynamic approach and really try to show that diversity is important,” Morris said. “Being a multicultural campus is something that they strive for.”
John Hillas, UTA’s openly gay coordinator for student affairs and co-chair of the Safe Zone initiative, has advised the university’s Gay Straight Alliance for five years. He said the new initiative is vital because it will increase visibility on campus with more events and provide dedicated personnel to focus on programming and to help the GSA with their event planning.
“I hope that it will bring about a greater appreciation for the diversity here on campus,” Hillas said. “You can’t change people’s minds, but you can change people’s hearts.”
Hillas said there has been a greater need for LGBT programming and speakers on campus during national events. He said past initiatives have helped the campus grow its strong and valued diversity, but a better focus on LGBT events would further the university’s diversity mission.
“I hope this will help us come into the 21st century with the gay-rights movement,” Hillas said.
Tom Anable, Fairness Fort Worth president and a UTA alumnus, said the university has discussed adding programming during a hate crime law enforcement symposium in the fall at UTA and again when the school hosted the White House Conference on Safe Schools and Communities March 20.
“I think they recognize the fact that if they were going to host events of this nature, they should be a little more progressive in the coursework they offer,” Anable said. “Going further and adding these programs is obviously a big step forward for the university.”
The task force will meet next spring to go over the progress of the first year of more programming. Stutzman said future changes to the initiative would add more courses that focused on LGBT issues and would include an LGBT student-faculty mentoring program within the next few years. A professional staff member for the LGBT programming would also be considered.
“The more programming you have, the more visibility that is on campus,” Stutzman said. “Students who are coming to campus need community, they need support, they need to have faculty and staff that they recognize as safe places and allies as they’re developing their holistic self emotionally, personally and professionally.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 25, 2012.
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