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For Jay (a pseudonym), a fifth-year doctoral student originally from China, the road to academic and interpersonal success has been a long one. Originally starting on his doctoral journey in 2010, first at smaller Midwest and East Coast research institutions and finally at Arizona State University, Jay faced numerous challenges.
Atop the strenuous research and academic expectations, Jay faced the additional challenges familiar to any stranger in a new country and culture.
And on top of that, Jay had a small secret: He’s gay.
Perceiving an unmet need within an underrepresented graduate student population, the Graduate College launched the HUES LGBTQ+ Mentoring Program in August 2017. Partnering members of the LGBTQ+ faculty, staff and graduate student communities with self-identified LGBTQ+ undergraduate and graduate students, HUES offers one-on-one mentoring, community engagement, and programming to foster support in identity navigation and community building.
With national statistics estimating between 6 and 10 percent of current college-going students identify as LGBTQ+, a potential 6,000 to 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students at ASU identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
“It is important that the navigation of multiple identities be a part of any larger conversation around the academic support and retention of our graduate students,” said Alfredo J. Artiles, dean of the Graduate College. “At ASU and through the Graduate College, we are fostering the development not only of world-class scholars and future knowledge leaders but are having conversations institutionally around resilience, culture and community membership as key to the successful navigation of these identities.”
HUES is part of the mentoring suite that is one of the cornerstones of the Graduate College’s community-engagement portfolio. HUES serves both undergraduate and graduate student populations, though graduate students currently constitute the majority of mentee applicants.
“At the undergraduate level,” said Zachary Reeves-Blurton, HUES creator and program manager within the Graduate College, “our LGBTQ+ students have so many opportunities for connection, support, advocacy and leadership. A perennial issue faced by many graduate students here is something of a disconnect from our university-wide student engagement initiatives. As a university, we are very adept at engaging our undergraduates in community-building initiatives and programming. As a graduate student, you are often slightly more isolated.”
For many graduate students in HUES, this is their only university engagement outside their own department.
“Everybody I hang out with is in my academic program,” Jay said. "Beyond that, I have some friends I have met at academic conferences or when I did my internship, as well as people I met at other universities I have been to.”
Like many graduate students from underrepresented communities, ASU wasn’t Jay’s first graduate institution. Previous to his arrival in 2012, he was admitted to and started doctorate work at two other institutions. But Jay didn't have anyone within his limited, mostly academic circle with whom he could share and confide in. As a gay man struggling to reconcile his sexual orientation with the cultural expectations of both his home country and his adoptive one, Jay transferred to another institution within a year.
“I had a great [research] adviser who came to ASU,” Jay said. “So I came here.”
Despite his close academic working relationship with his adviser and finding support after coming out to peers in his program, Jay, a computer science student, still struggled to find others in his primarily heterosexual, male-dominated field with whom he could discuss matters of identity.
“I always felt alone,” he explained. “It’s really hard, right? You have nobody to share (identity-related fears or challenges) with. You sometimes really feel desperate.”
When he learned about HUES in fall 2017, Jay signed up, eager to begin making meaningful connections within the ASU LGBTQ+ community.
Finding that community and commonality was groundbreaking for Jay.
“It’s like you find a new continent,” he said. “Like you find a new area … something you’ve never known about before.”
Over the course of their mentoring relationship, Jay and his mentor met twice a month — or more, occasionally — to discuss everything from Jay’s hesitation to come out to colleagues once in the workplace to the best ways to meet friends and explore non-academic interests. When community events came along that Jay might be interested in — like Phoenix’s Rainbows Festival or community performances — his mentor often went out of his way to include Jay. Jay’s mentor was at his doctoral defense in October and invited Jay along for a flight-seeing tour of the Phoenix area guided by his partner, a licensed pilot.
Now, after three semesters working together, Jay and his mentor are parting ways: Jay is completing his degree and taking a position in California, and his mentor is pursuing a career opportunity on the East Coast.
Asked if he and his mentor had plans to keep in touch, Jay was enthusiastic.
“Yeah, yeah!” he said. “We will visit each other.”
At her previous institution in a fairly liberal state, Bea (also a pseudonym), a doctoral student, found a supportive and visible community of allies and advocates in her academic department, including fellow LGBTQ+ students and faculty. This was instrumental in her decision to begin the process of coming out.
Taken under the wing of a fellow LGBTQ+ student, Bea remembers that “something just hit me … like hope.” She said, "You need to be confident in yourself because I really wasn’t confident in myself at the time. She sort of believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, she made me realize (I was) OK.”
The encouragement and support she received in navigating both her identity and her academic pathway eventually led Bea, who was struggling in both areas at the time, to continue on to doctoral work.
At ASU, Bea immediately found a supportive and inclusive environment in her academic department and research group, though none were members of the LGBTQ+ community. Bea was drawn to HUES by the opportunity to expand her own limited LGBTQ+ network.
“I don’t know a lot of (LGBTQ+) people,” said Bea. “(Strong interpersonal relationships) are something I haven’t quite had since I moved here. Because my family’s out of state, my mentor is like a mother figure. I feel like that would be exaggerating, but I feel like I have a family here now.”
Like Jay, Bea’s mentor has introduced her to a wider network within the ASU LGBTQ+ community, and this, in turn, has provided her with inspiration and a renewed confidence that impacts her academic focus. “It’s great seeing who the LGBTQ+ faculty and community members are and that they can be really confident being gays and lesbians. And they’re so accomplished — it’s quite amazing.”
As it did for Jay, seeing other LGBTQ+ academics helped normalize an experience that has been a somewhat isolating one, up to this point.
“She’s been just a great example,” Bea said of her mentor. “It helped me visualize a life, you know?”
The ASU Catalyst Awards, an annual recognition ceremony by the Committee for Campus Inclusion (CCI) and the Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement, recognizes the impact HUES mentors have had for students like Jay and Bea.
“The work of inclusivity is woven into so much of what we do at ASU as a part of its charter,” said Stanlie James, vice provost for inclusion and community engagement. “The mandate of CCI is to educate around issues of inclusion and raise the visibility of efforts university-wide to create a sustained ecosystem of inclusivity and equality.”
That’s where the Catalyst Awards come in. With inclusivity embedded within so much of what the institution does, the Catalyst Awards are CCI’s way of acknowledging and recognizing efforts to inspire and ignite social transformation and inclusion beyond the scope of expectation.
“It’s about acknowledging a job well done,” James said. “It’s about, at the end of the day, saying, ‘Hey, this team isn’t giving 100 percent; they’re giving 110 percent!’”
“It’s such an honor to be nominated,” said Shannon Lank, a HUES mentor and frequent panelist at HUES community programming. “And it was an even bigger surprise to receive the award.”
For Reeves-Blurton a defining moment was watching the mentors walk to the podium to shake hands with James and receive the award while their mentees cheered in the audience. “This is an exceptional group of mentors,” said Reeves-Blurton. “I’ve talked to the mentees in the hallways after panel discussions and it's clear the impact the mentors are having on their students is tangible.”
Jay and Bea's stories, as well as numerous other HUES participants, are Reeves-Blurton’s motivation as he pushes to expand HUES.
“Some of the stories I hear are just incredible,” he said. “I’m so proud of what these mentorships are accomplishing. These mentors, in sharing their experiences, incorporating these students into their larger networks, giving them a shoulder to lean on here at ASU — it’s fantastic.”
For now, the bulk of HUES programming and mentoring partnerships are based on the Tempe campus.
“We’re just starting to connect mentors and mentees downtown,” said Reeves-Blurton, “and I’m excited to start seeing interest picking up at West and Poly, too.”
By next year, he hopes to see HUES programming taking place across all four campuses.
“Inclusion is more than just talking about creating opportunities for our students,” he said. “It’s about actually doing the work. That’s a long process, and sometimes it’s a rough road, but receiving this award tells us that we’re at least on the right track.”
The HUES program is one of two mentoring programs operated out of the Graduate College. For more information or to apply to be a mentor or mentee, visit graduate.asu.edu/professional-development/mentoring.