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Safe Zone Program Leads Rensselaer to Greater Diversity

The Rensselaer Safe Zone Program — which is designed to raise awareness and provide support in regards to the concerns of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) persons and encourage members of the campus community to become allies — was resurrected when Tara Schuster joined the Institute as health educator in the summer of 2008. Schuster said her goal is to “bring light to the university that we are a diverse institute.

Diversity does exist in many shapes, forms, and colors on campus.” The Safe Zone program was first introduced to Rensselaer by Schuster’s predecessor, Terri Kersch, and former health director Katrin Wesner, but the program went dormant until Schuster stepped up and revamped the program. For the first two years, she presented Safe Zone training with Dave Jordan in Public Safety, but soon pursued the project full time in January 2011. Schuster eliminated outdated materials from the Safe Zone training manual, met with Public Safety, and researched new activities for the training sessions. Prior to her start at Rensselaer, Schuster worked at the University of Virginia where they had an office specifically for LGBTQ persons. She incorporated a panel into Rensselaer’s Safe Zone Program after experiencing the rich value added by the University of Virginia’s Safe Zone panel.

Safe Zone training sessions last approximately two hours. The first hour includes interactive activities such as the dating game, the gender activity, and reviewing the training manual.

The second hour includes a group of panelists who share their experiences as LGBTQ people, including a brief synopsis of their childhood, hometowns, and their discovery toward coming out. Currently, panelists include Matthew Karnick, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering, Joshua Gonyea, a senior majoring in environmental engineering, Theresa Vi Pham ’10, a physics graduate, and Justin Sundell-Thomas, a senior majoring in math.

Each panelist has volunteered to tell their stories for different reasons, but they have all found the experience rewarding for both themselves and their peers. Many of them said the Safe Zone training sessions have renewed their faith in the student body and shown them that students are a lot more accepting than they had thought.

“The Safe Zone training has helped me to be more open about issues that arise due to sexuality. I no longer have any qualms about telling people my story or standing up to people who are offensive,” said Karnick, who is gay. “Standing up in front of 70 people and admitting some of your most personal things tends to make you more confident.” Pham believes that it has made her more confident and proud in her bisexual identity. Justin Sundell-Thomas is transgender and joined the panel to add a new perspective to the mix. He believes the panel is very important because it puts a face to issues that LGBTQ people face. “The single greatest thing making people accepting is knowing someone,” said Sundell-Thomas.

At the end of each session, students are asked to fill out an anonymous evaluation and are given an opportunity to sign up as an ally and give permission to be put on the ally database as a resource for LGBTQ people to talk to. Everyone is also given a Rensselaer ally sticker that they can post anywhere. Schuster hopes that the sticker will give students the courage they need to feel safe and take the necessary steps they need to come out.

“I hope that this is a space where students can explore what it means to be who they are and come to terms with that and accept themselves and have their peers come to terms with that as well,” said Schuster.

The Safe Zone Program has trained staff in Human Resources, Residence Life, Greek Life, the Student Health Center, and Admissions, as well as students in Athletics and in various humanities classes. There are currently more than 1,000 faculty, staff, and students who have become Safe Zone allies since 2008.
The Safe Zone Program is working to recruit more faculty, staff, administrators, and members of the Student Senate, and to get into more humanities classes. Schuster plans to get the training packet professionally made in the future.

“The Safe Zone training has helped me to be more open about issues that arise due to sexuality. I no longer have any qualms about telling people my story or standing up to people who are offensive.”
—Matthew Karnick

The Rensselaer Pride Alliance is also making its own contributions in raising awareness and acceptance within the local community by participating in the Albany Gay Pride Parade, hosting a candlelight vigil for Transgender Remembrance Day, and putting on a charity drag show for the campus and Troy community. Sundell-Thomas, president of the Pride Alliance, said that they are actively seeking improvements at the administrative level within the Institute by trying to find a way to identify whether a student is comfortable living with an LGBTQ person, providing gender-neutral housing, and having gender-neutral single occupancy bathrooms, among other suggestions. The Greeks have also created the Greek Life Spectrum designed to serve as an ally program promoting acceptance and helping with LGBTQ issues within the Greek community.

Rensselaer is progressing into an even more diverse institution. “It doesn’t take much to help our causes. Any show of support is great,” said Karnick. “Someone in the closet does notice even the smallest show of support.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 19, December 9, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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