For many students, arriving at college is a first taste of independence. Upon graduation, students are thrust into the adult world with little more than a degree to help them move forward. Administrators at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) weren’t satisfied with that, so the school’s alumni association was founded.
Now, university leaders are developing another group to assist their graduating students: an LGBTQ Alumni Association. Campus leaders like UNCC Assistant Director for Sexual & Gender Diversity Joshua Burford and Student Affairs Leadership Gift Officer Drema Craft are working to organize the LGBTQ board to address the needs of these vulnerable graduates.
“Many students hope their experience after high school will allow for a better experience based on their identity,” Craft told qnotes. “As an institution, we must create a climate for LGBTQ students to have a feeling of inclusion and safety.”
This goal may be a long-term one, but building a community organization to strive for it is the first step. However, the association’s success depends on its members — alumni who are driven to improve their alma mater and make it a more welcoming place than it may have been for them.
“Queer and trans graduates feel disconnected from campus life because their experiences are so different,” Burford told qnotes. “Many have negative experiences, and others merely finish and move on.”
The alumni who move on are the ones the university and its students most need to get involved, Burford says. By engaging past students in leadership roles, LGBTQ alumni are able to make a positive impact on the campus environment for future queer students — as well as gain access to resources that can benefit students’ transition to professional life.
“Visibility will be crucial to this for certain, as well as identifying the skills that our graduates possess,” Burford said. “An engaged group of current and past students can be a catalyst for change in Charlotte by pulling together knowledge and resources in ways never before imagined.”
Pulling together resources for the project is where Craft comes in. She raises funds for student and alumni organizations and events at UNCC. This, of course, includes the ever-growing efforts to support the school’s LGBTQ community.
“Not only am I an ally of the LGBTQ community, but in my role I support their efforts as an advocate for funds to operate and continue to award scholarships to LGBTQ students each year,” Craft said. “[Also] events held for students and alumni, and discretionary support for LGBTQ activities on campus and students in need.”
The alumni board consists of members appointed for two years, and the executive director of the LGBTQ alumni board sits on that of the university. Meeting at least twice yearly, the board manages the direction of efforts to serve UNCC graduates — now, the needs of LGBTQ graduates are a particular focal point.
“There are social opportunities with brown bag lunches and potlucks throughout the year,” Craft said. “All faculty, staff, students and alumni are invited to attend these events to interact and provide support to one another. This allows for an opportunity to build a social and professional network for LGBTQ and straight allies.”
Networking is a powerful tool for any professional, but especially so for a population that faces outright discrimination and even violence. A queer person arriving for a job interview could feel a little less apprehensive if associates have shared their own positive experiences with a certain employer.
Providing a space to make professional contacts with similar people gives alumni an extra edge they might have missed if they were going it alone in a challenging — but changing — world. Craft said that the momentum towards acceptance of the LGBTQ community in larger, off-campus society raises hopes for the success of improving university inclusiveness.
“While there is still discrimination and harassment, there is less overall,” said Craft. “As society is slowing changing, awakening, so are universities and colleges.”
Burford, Craft and the UNCC LGBTQ Alumni Association organizers want to contribute to this awakening. It all starts with making connections, and demonstrating to alumni that their input is a key tool to make a difference.
“It is important to connect with this population because their input about life on campus, their knowledge as professionals, can help us engage LGBTQ undergraduates in various ways,” Burford said. “The goals are to create an engaged alumni in order to support the continued work of making UNCC an affirming and empowering space for queer and trans individuals.”