A case study of transgenderism and the college experience

April 8, 2014
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • AACRAO Connect
  • gender

Ashley Edwards, a graduate student at Elon University, conducted original research along with Elon’s registrar, Rodney Parks, on transgenderism on campus. The results were compelling enough to make Ashley the first ever recipient of the Conner Scholarship, a monetary award provided by AACRAO to an individual with a session topic of significant benefit to Annual Meeting attendees.

Ashley and Rodney made it clear early on that many aspects of campus life that traditional-gender-defined students, faculty, and staff take for granted can be stressful, uncomfortable, or – in some cases –  harmful for transgender populations. Class roll calls, going to a public restroom, and living on-campus are just a few examples. Both the interviewed students were candid about their many and varied negative experiences in school. As Ashley pointed out, college and university is where many students try and figure out who they are, and this population, however small, is underserved in this respect.

But Rodney had some suggestions to make their lives easier. One seemingly simple modification to the application or registration form is placing a preferred name option on school forms, or even further, asking for gender identity rather than just gender. This can help identify these students without singling them out publically, and can help give the institution a more accurate estimation of how large this student population is. Knowing how many students there are can help institutions think more strategically about how to serve the students; it could make sense to have more unisex bathrooms, to offer gender neutral housing, and to have all staff trained on how to help these students without being uncomfortable or offensive.

But beyond these service outlets, are there campus activities that might foster their growth and development outside of academe? Only 623 postsecondary institutions have defined policies on transgender students, faculty, and staff – but almost none actually track how many students there are, or provide services that might help them identify themselves in a comfortable setting. Ashley and Rodney made a point of saying that even small changes can have a big impact.