When I first got the call that I was being offered what I considered to be my dream position, I was beyond words. You mean I was going to get PAID to educate individuals about gender and sexuality and not just do it as a side project? I leapt for joy!
I walked on to campus on July 2nd, excited, yet nervous. I felt I was armed with enough books, methods, and thoughts to propel me to success; however, as the days passed and I approached the students’ arrival, my anxiety only got worse. What if I was out of touch? What if I wasn’t the “expert” everyone was hoping I was going to be? What if they didn’t like me? What if I failed? Even though I wanted to stop time so I could get myself adjusted, Orientation weekend was upon me and I had to be off to the races.
While the year was hectic with programs, lectures, films, discussions, and meetings, it was full of mistakes and triumphs: our first Social Justice Institute, a successful Safe Zone training program, new gender and sexuality discussion groups and much more. I felt that I was having an impact on students’ lives every day.
It’s now only about a week or so after graduation, and is it possible that I miss them already? Don’t tell them this, but as I was cleaning out files and changing the website around, it dawned on me that could it be possible that they have actually taught me more this year than I taught them? As I looked at the various artifacts, here’s just a short list of what I’ve learned from students this year:
- The power of authenticity: Each week students would share their thoughts on various sexuality-themed subjects in an informal positive sexuality discussion group that sprung up. Rather than be held back by what others would think, they quickly created the axiom “Don’t Yuck Someone Else’s Yum,” which allowed them to be genuine with their questions, concerns. This allowed me to provide guidance while not worrying what they would think of me in the process. As I became more and more “me,” they came to me with deeper and deeper issues and questions.
- The power of genuine affection: As a male who had been reinforced to hate my emotions, I was surrounded by students who deeply cared about each other and were not afraid to show that. It was not uncommon for me to walk into the student organization office to find students leaning up against each other, playing with each others’ hair, and behaving in other calming ways as one discussed the recent exam or project they had coming up. They were not afraid to be affectionate, show their emotions, and live connected lives. I knew that this would be a hard road for me to travel, but one I could work toward if the end result was the feelings I saw displayed on my students’ faces.
- The power of fun: Sometimes we forget this in our line of work, don’t we? That it’s okay to take a few minutes and joke around, do something completely ridiculous. I would walk outside on a beautiful day, gaze out across the Quad, saying to those around me, “these are the days I miss being an undergraduate.” Then I realized why couldn’t I take a break and walk around campus? Sit down at a chair and talk with students about whatever was on their minds, even if it wasn’t gender or sexuality related. I learned that it was more important for them to see me out and about, interacting with folks, and laughing then trapped in an office, waiting for them to come see me.
- The power of action, local and global: I was constantly inspired by students who made service a central point of their lives. I’d ask students what they were doing for their break or after graduation. Responses included participating in Teach for America, going abroad to foreign countries for service experiences, studying abroad on fellowships, et cetera. Cerebrally I know that service is a vital component of social justice, yet, I don’t make time for it. These students taught me that if I am to be a true advocate for social justice, then I can’t just teach about it, I must do it, too. Thus I’ve made the decision to be a learning partner for an alternative school break trip next year.
In the end, I know that my students taught me much more this year than I taught them. I learned that I needed to be me and that people would respect me more by doing so, that it was okay if I made a mistake as long as I admitted it and sought out the understanding necessary to not make a similar mistake again, that it was okay to be frustrated but to take the time to celebrate the victories (big or small), and that I must not simply talk but do. I know that I often rely on best practices, books and articles written by excellent authors and researchers, and the advice of colleagues to make me a committed social justice educator. What I sometimes forget is that I learn just as much (or in this case, more) about myself by opening up to others.
Gene Kelly currently serves as Associate Dean of Intercultural Development and Director of Gender and Sexuality Programs at Lafayette College in Easton, PA where he develops and implements programs and services for all campus constituents and also chairs the College’s Bias Response Team. This fall he will be teaching a course on gender, sexuality, and the media. In addition, he is currently completing his doctoral dissertation on conformity to masculine gender norms and subtle rape myth belief in the Ph.D. program in Human Development at Marywood University where he is also a lecturer in the psychology and counseling program. Kelly is also a diversity consultant and trainer and, for a dose of weekly humility, a struggling piano student. He can be reached at email@example.com.