An exciting aspect of the convention exhibit hall for many is the college booths. Not only is this a great place to receive free shirts, college paraphernalia and play Just Dance, but it is also a place to think about one’s upcoming future and independence. For many youth and young adults visiting these booths is influential in making their undergraduate decisions.
However, for LGBTQ youth, another important factor for deciding on a college besides which has the coolest t-shirt is how safe the campus feels. Pink Menno hosted a College Student Panel Discussion where representatives from the different Mennonite colleges spoke on their own safe space programs and events. Representing the colleges were: Christine Amstutz and Kerry Bush from Bluffton University, Pax Ressler from Goshen College, and Darian Harnish and Lisle Bertsche from Eastern Mennonite University. Luke Yoder and Annabeth Roeschley facilitated questions for the student panel before allowing for open questions from those who attended.
Looking at the current atmosphere of the colleges, all expressed that there is a diversity of perspectives on LGBTQ inclusion. However, what differed between them was the amount of support and the majority of opinion. Darian and Lisle reported having a divided feel on campus, yet there are many safe places that are present. Christine and Kerry described how though they are still an unofficial group, many of the faculty and staff are very supportive. The group in general on campus has been becoming more visible. Goshen College mentioned that the more vocal voice on campus is in support of LGBTQ issues. Pax reported how it is just “not cool” to be anti-gay on campus. Currently Goshen has been working on addressing the faculty hiring policy of Goshen.
When looking at the different activities on the campuses all the groups reported having many events.
Goshen has three areas of activities. PRISM is their LGBTQ anonymous group where complete safety is stressed. Goshen also has an open group called Advocates that works for advocacy on campus. The last and most recent area of activity at Goshen has been their open letter group which stresses the change of the colleges hiring policy regarding open LGBTQ faculty. This letter has been supported by both students and alumni. At Bluffton, the student leaders have been connecting with other departments including: Religion Dept., Residence Life, Religious Life, Women’s Studies, Peace and Conflict Dept., and the student organization PEACE Club. Along with connecting across campus, they have hosted safe space training and have included that training in Resident Advisors and Hall Chaplain trainings. EMU Safe Space has been able to develop as an official group under the statement “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love”. They have focused on their weekly meetings and education bringing in speakers and distributing information concerning homophobia.
Along with some of the progress that has been developing at these colleges, there have been some challenges. For Bluffton, just becoming an official student group has been tedious as this is the third push for such a group on campus; the first one in 2002, and the second in 2007. Goshen also has had a similar issue with their PRISM group being official and receiving funding. Also, Pax expressed the need for LGBTQ role models on campus which the open letter addresses. EMU has described that a major challenge has been sustainability in leadership as there is constant student turnover. All groups described their leadership transition. Most have documentation of events and minutes and varying class leadership.
Over the past year there have been many highlights at the colleges. Goshen’s open letter has had much positive response. Bluffton has been able to draw in LGBTQ speakers with great student attendance. EMU has also reported large attendance at their events and since introducing their Safe Space t-shirts, they have been spreading throughout the campus.
Though there is still a lot of work on these campuses, the students present have been working hard to create safe spaces. The atmospheres at these colleges have been changing and these changes have been spreading to faculty and staff as well at the convention here at Pittsburgh. Bethel College and Hesston College representatives were not present because it was unknown if there is any official/unofficial presence there.
May the broader Mennonite Church see the compassionate and including Spirit at work at Bluffton University, Goshen College, and Eastern Mennonite University. Also may we embrace and support the work of these young leaders and the gifts they bring to the church.