Why My Visibility as a Queer Student Leader Matters
Getting involved on campus is a great way to build confidence. Learn how one RA used their leadership experience to explore their LGBTQ+ identity.
As a queer person, self-advocacy has always been a necessary life skill. However, it wasn't until I got involved in the housing department at my university that I realized how this skill, among others, could be developed and refined.
It was my experience in the housing department that was most impactful to me during my time as an undergraduate, and it will be the most helpful to me as I enter my master's program and prepare for the postgraduate workforce.
Learning to Lead From Others
Being a leader in any organization allows you to act as a role model to others. However, this action takes on a unique role in a housing position. As a resident assistant (RA) at my university, it was my job to oversee a wing of around 30 students. This included overseeing their academic wellbeing, mental health, and connections in order to offer support and resources.
Each building on our campus was assigned a supervisor who oversaw the RAs in that particular hall. We called these individuals hall directors (HDs). Even before I was an RA, I was fortunate enough to work with several HDs who were also members of the LGBTQ+ community. They inspired me to work harder towards my goals of increased visibility and acceptance in the college housing world.
Some people see representation as something that only occurs in the media. But real-life representation is incredibly important, especially to young professionals. Visualizing yourself as a part of the working world is essential for making the next steps toward post-college life.
For me, those HDs made such an impact on me simply by their existence. I grew up not knowing many "older" queer people. Although many of the HDs were only in their 20s or 30s, it was nonetheless a breath of fresh air to see them surviving and thriving. I was able to see myself in them — and in turn, able to see myself as a "real adult." It made the idea of being successful a tangible possibility.
Because of these experiences, I knew that one of the most important aspects of my role as an RA was my own visibility as a queer leader. Thankfully, there was no shortage of opportunities to act as a role model for others.
Becoming a Student Leader
RA positions, and other similar campus jobs, provide ample opportunity for a whole lot of fun. Event planning, decorating, and socializing were regular expectations. It was especially great to work with other RAs in the building to complete special projects. It helped us build our collaboration skills and enhanced the feeling of community in the building.
A unique aspect of our campus was the encouragement to hold events centered around equity, diversity, and inclusivity. To name one example, during October, our staff would often throw an event for LGBTQ+ history month. Planning, executing, or attending events like these helped me grow as a leader in my own community and allowed me to become a better ally to others.
Additionally, one of the greatest aspects of an RA role is the emphasis on communication. I had the blessing of being a part of one of the largest staffs on campus (nearly 20 people!), but I felt the impact of our communicative aspect no matter what size group I was in.
In living and working together as a team, we all learned an awful lot about each other. That allowed us to get a sense of each person's unique perspective — and allowed us all to be more intersectional in our thinking. Through this communication, we were able to become better allies for each other and each other's communities.
Although there were a lot of aspects of the role that seemed to come naturally, there were also learning curves when it came to being a housing staff member. For me, the skills I was able to refine the most were productive confrontation and self-advocacy. These two skills, while used in very different scenarios, require a third, foundational skill: confidence.
Building Confidence and Self-Advocacy Skills
Confidence was a key skill I developed through my role as an RA. My confidence grew thanks to the support of my coworkers and supervisors, our regular communication, and the application of my existing skill set. What took work was applying that confidence to my actions.
When engaging in both productive confrontation and self-advocacy, I had to learn to assert myself. That could mean asserting my knowledge of a given topic, my right to be doing or saying any given thing, or my self-worth as a person or an employee.
Refining my skills in productive confrontation required me to actively work against some of the stereotypes that I had allowed to become ingrained in myself. I was hesitant to be too forceful or authoritative in my actions, believing that it made me somehow unlikeable or contentious. In this new position, I had to find a balance that could make a successful confrontation event possible.
It was no easy feat, and it's something that I will continue to work on for the rest of my life. However, having a support system to fall back on was the key to overcoming a lot of my fears relating to confrontation.
In a similar vein, my experiences with housing also helped me with my self-advocacy skills. This was especially important during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were many instances where my staff felt stressed or overworked because of our additional COVID responsibilities.
This prompted me to push past my hesitations and advocate for myself. Our HD ended up being very understanding — after all, she was experiencing a similar increase in her workload. In speaking up for the staff, I was able to work out a solution that gave us all some much-needed relief.
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My Advice as a Queer Student Leader
If I were to give any advice to young queer folks thinking about working in college housing, all I can say is — DO IT! You will be glad you did, and your future skill set and resume will thank you.
Even if you're not interested in working in housing, there are so many different paths you can take to better yourself in college. Whether that's a sport, a club, an organization, a job, etc., there is no finer tool for self-improvement than involvement.
No matter what you choose, you can help promote representation just in your existence. Be brave, clever, and unashamedly queer — you just might inspire someone else to do the same.