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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

‘Invigorated by difference’: Saint Mary’s unveils new LGBTQ+ Center, Office for Student Equity

The South Bend skies on Thursday were gray and cloudy, but one room on the campus of Saint Mary’s College was bursting with color.

Aside from a plethora of pride flags and bags of chips arranged in a rainbow formation, the room’s most prominent feature is a colorful artwork by local artist Alex Ann Allen, whose murals can be seen across the city of South Bend. This piece, titled “When Our Colors Unite,” is a 6-by-6 aerosol on canvas, featuring a flurry of multicolored stripes converging into a spiral.

Evan McKenna | The Observer

The room in question is Saint Mary’s LGBTQ+ Center, located on the second floor of Saint Mary’s Student Center. A space for LGBTQ students and allies to gather safely and create community, the Center was unveiled along with the neighboring Office for Student Equity at a ribbon-cutting event in Rice Commons on Thursday evening. The ceremony was held as a part of a week-long series of events celebrating the inauguration of the College’s President Katie Conboy, taking place on October 9.

Kicking off the evening of speakers was the College’s interim vice president for mission Molly Gower, who spoke on the significance of the new additions, especially in support and acknowledgment of students, faculty and staff in the context of a Catholic institution like Saint Mary’s. Gower then introduced Redgina Hill, vice president for inclusion and equity, who elaborated further on the purpose of the Center.

“A recent Saint Mary’s College student climate survey revealed that our LGBTQ students had more difficulties making friends and did not always feel welcome,” Hill said. “These findings pointed to a dire need for a safe space at Saint Mary’s for our LGBTQ+ students.” 

The opening of the Center marks the campus’s first official safe space for LGBTQ students since the College’s inception in 1844. Although this introduction comes late in the school’s history, Hill hopes the new space will impact the College’s LGBTQ alumni in addition to current students and campus community members.

“We can never know all the stories of our queer students, faculty and staff who have walked these halls since 1844. What I do know is that not all have felt welcomed or safe to be their authentic selves,” Hill said. “I hope this Center is the first step towards reconciliation with our alums, and a place for our students, faculty and staff to express themselves authentically and as a result, allow Saint Mary’s to truly become a place they can call home … This moment is one that exemplifies [that] Saint Mary’s is committed to change and cracking barriers that hold communities back.”

Hill then introduced Conboy, who thanked the many individuals responsible for the creation of the LGBTQ+ Center and Office for Student Equity before reflecting on a beloved phrase from her strategic plan: “invigorated by difference.” 

“And that, I think, is what we want at Saint Mary’s College,” Conboy said. “So, today — what a great start.”

And although the opening of an LGBTQ safe space on the campus of a Catholic college might be seen as contentious by many within the Church, Conboy asserted the Center’s concordance with Catholic doctrine.

“This space that you’ll see upstairs and the good work of the Office of Student Equity affirms the Catholic Church’s belief that all persons must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” she said.

Next, Conboy welcomed to the podium Jacqueline Leskovec. Despite Leskovec’s many titles — a founding member and the vice president of Pride SMC, the College’s official group of LGBTQ alumni, as well as a member of the Saint Mary’s class of 1974 — she spoke to the crowd first and foremost as a member of the LGBTQ community herself. 

“When I first came out, I was a student here at Saint Mary’s, and I could only dream of such a welcoming place for LGBTQIA students on campus,” she said. “Back then, being out was not easy — and that’s not saying it’s easy today. But visibility, acceptance and a safe space help us all along the road to self-actualization as we become the people we are.”

And following additional speeches from H.R. Jung, executive director of The LGBTQ Center in South Bend, and Francesca Giuliano, a Saint Mary’s junior acting as the president of the College’s sexuality and gender equity club; Christin Kloski spoke more on the purpose of the new Office for Student Equity. Serving as the office’s associate director, Kloski described her role in assisting first-generation and low-income students at the College.

“We exist to help create economic opportunities for students to thrive at Saint Mary’s College and to truly achieve their full experience of being a student here,” Kloski said. “Our office is able to provide students with laptops, laptop repairs, winter clothing, professional clothing, emergency travel funding, commencement regalia, seminars, retreats and football tickets — and that list will continue to grow due to the ever-changing demographics of Saint Mary’s.” 

And finally, Kloski introduced Angela Martinez Camacho, a Saint Mary’s junior serving as the student government association’s vice president of operations and the president of the residence hall association. A first-generation student herself, Camacho told the audience about her experience meeting Kloski while receiving assistance from the Office for Student Equity, recalling her excitement hearing Kloski’s plans for the office’s future. 

“Hearing about where she would like to take this office gives me hope that students like me won’t feel ashamed of needing a little extra financial assistance from time to time,” Camacho said. “This office and Christin are beyond just giving money. This office will be a resource where students can confide in Christin and ask them about our futures: ‘How do I do my taxes?’ or ‘Where should I live after college?’”

Finally, the event concluded with a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony. Standing alongside Camacho and other staff members, Conboy cut two ribbons in quick succession: one for the LGBTQ+ Center and one for the Office for Student Equity. Attendees were then invited upstairs to tour the newly opened spaces.

Crystal Ramirez | The Observer
Crystal Ramirez | The Observer

The LGBTQ+ Center and the Office for Student Equity were not just an administrative effort — many Saint Mary’s students also advocated for their inception. One student, in particular, was actively involved: Sophia Sanchez, a junior majoring in sociology and gender and women’s studies, joined a group of College staff in drafting the proposal campaigning for the Center’s opening. 

Although the opening of the Center represents a massive success for Saint Mary’s, Sanchez said, there are still many ways faculty and administration at the College can continue to support the LGBTQ community moving forward. 

“It’s just the easy questions: asking someone’s pronouns, using inclusive language, just recognizing that there are different types of students that come from different walks of life who have different identities,” she said.

Sanchez also invited all members of the tri-campus community to visit the Center and explore its offerings. 

“It’s going to be a space for people to feel welcome, but also a space where we can invite people outside of the tri-campus community to come in and do speeches or talks or events — so be on the lookout for that for sure,” she said. “This is definitely something that’s not just a Saint Mary’s thing. The center is definitely a tri-campus space for all students to come and hang out and talk. Whatever space they need to do anything — it’s definitely here for everybody.”