How One Local University Supports Trans Students

Are college campuses doing enough for their transgender students?

According to The Healthy Minds Study, a national survey of over 14,000 students on campuses across the United States, 32.7 percent of transgender respondents thought about attempting suicide in 2013. In addition, 28.2 percent of transgender respondents worried someone would notify their parents of their transgender identity. It’s been four years since this survey took place and transgender high school and college students across the United States still struggle with finding safe places to use the bathroom.

Things were starting to get better. In May 2016, the Obama administration issued a “sweeping directive telling every public school district in the country to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.”  Then, in February of 2017, the Trump administration “ended federal protections for transgender students that instructed schools to allow them to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identities.” Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, was quoted in The Telegraph saying, “Reversing [Barack Obama’s] guidance tells trans kids that it’s okay with the Trump administration and the Department of Education for them to be abused and harassed at school for being trans.”

Carlow University (CU) wants no part of that. “Carlow in no way will be changing their policies or procedures to reflect those guidelines,” says Jennifer Carlo, Vice President of Student Engagement at CU, referring to the Trump administration’s policy changes regarding transgender students.

Photo Credit: Carlow University Website

Simon Caccia is a senior transgender student at CU. He said in an interview, “My freshman orientation week was a little rough.” As a new student at Carlow, Caccia lived on a girls’ floor, which describes as ‘hellish’. “After my freshman year, they made the fourth floor coed. I love the idea of a coed floor because it’s trans friendly, and good for people whether or not they’re out and whether or not they fit into the gender binary,” says Caccia. “If I had been able to have [a coed floor] my freshman year, I would have felt so much better.”

He recalls an issue last year with people “going into the wrong bathrooms” while living on the coed floor. “For the first time in my life, I was told, however indirectly, that I wouldn’t be welcome in a girls’ restroom, and it was really empowering,” he says. He calls the coed floor a big and wonderful step, and he feels confident that Carlow College “won’t tolerate any transphobia from students or staff.”

Jennifer Carlo describes Carlow’s housing policy as a “work in progress.” Carlo is working with Gwendolyn Stevens, Assistant Director of Campus Life, to look at what other institutions are doing as far as students being assigned roommates according to the gender with which they identify. Stevens says that all students are encouraged to work with campus life for housing questions. Carlow College is committed to making bathrooms accessible, too. Carlo agrees that students should use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. In addition, she says, “Over the last few years we’ve created a number of gender neutral bathrooms across campus any student can use. ”

Trans-friendly counseling is also available on campus to those who need it. Nicole Lacey and Chloe Heimbuch are mental health counselors at Carlow. If they can’t help directly, they will guide students to the resources they need. Carlo said, “In at least one case, a counselor worked with a student to find more specialized resources,” as the student needed more in-depth support than what the campus could provide. “Both Residence Assistants and First Year Mentors receive training with PERSAD to make sure our student staff is aware of trends, terminology, and ways to support students.” PERSAD Center is a “human service organization whose mission is to improve the well-being of the LGBTQ+ communities, and the HIV/AIDS communities,” according to their official website. There are PERSAD service centers located in both Pittsburgh and Washington, PA.

As far as campus involvement, the LGBTQIA+ club isn’t very active, but Gwendolyn Stevens says, “They’re present, and they’re always looking for new energy, so please reach out to campus life if you’re interested [in joining].” Dr. Harriet Schwartz, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Carlow University, along with a group of students, created Carlow United in response to the November 2016 election results ruling in favor of Donald Trump. It reads on Carlow United’s Facebook page, “We seek to create a culture of empathy, even among people who disagree. We believe there is no room for hate. You matter. Let’s take care of each other.” Stevens said Carlow United is a “broader LGBTQ+ group rather than just for trans students,” but that she knows a few trans students who participate in the group and “find it helpful.”

Although Simon Caccia’s freshman experience was difficult, he said he had “a lot of help that year,” especially from his Resident Assistant, friends, and the Carlow Police. Caccia also said, “I remember the joy I felt when I first saw informational pamphlets about trans people in the nurse’s office. I also appreciate how accommodating the staff is when a trans student changes their name.” Caccia said he’s heard horror stories from friends at other universities about trans students not being allowed to use their preferred names, although “cisgender students can use nicknames like ‘Yeti’ in class.” “I’m really glad Carlow isn’t like that,” said Caccia.

All in all, Caccia says, “I feel safe here. Carlow is doing a lot for its trans students, and I’m really proud of that.”