Jan. 10, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 7

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    LGBTQ Mentoring Program celebrating one year of helping gay, lesbian students

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    This month, the LGBTQ Mentoring Program will celebrate one year of helping lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, as well as students who are questioning their sexual identity, to feel more comfortable at the University.

    The LGBTQ Mentoring Program, modeled on a similar program run by the Coordinating Council for Minority Issues, matches a gay faculty or staff member, or mentor, with a gay student, called a “mentee.” Mentors and mentees are in contact at least once a week, usually by phone or e-mail, and meet in person at least once each quarter. The program also offers participants field trips, including dinners, baseball games, Court Theatre performances and bowling outings.

    For many mentors, participating in the program is a chance to make a younger person’s undergraduate experience easier than their experience was when they attended college. “When I was in college in the mid-’70s, there was no social acceptance of being gay. I felt very much adrift and on my own,” said Tim Child, Director of Principal Gifts in Development and Alumni Relations and mentor of third-year Joe Griffith. “Having older people to talk to would have been helpful.”

    Twenty-five years later, undergraduates can still feel adrift. “At my age, even though many kids are out, most are still trying to find out where they might fit in. Being a gay kid makes that already difficult process an even harder one,” said Griffith.

    “Tim’s positive attitude and accomplishments have impressed me and made me very excited to grow up and be a productive member of the gay community.”

    The LGBTQ Mentoring Program is the brainchild of Kathy Forde, Adviser in the College, who co-founded it with Jim Howley, a Graduate Career Counselor in Career & Placement Services, and Anne Pizzi, former president of the student organization Queers & Associates.

    Forde, who mentors Pizzi, now runs the mentoring program with John Laseman, also an Adviser in the College, and with ongoing help from Howley.

    The program began with 20 faculty/staff mentors and 24 students (some mentors have two mentees). Currently there are 32 mentors and 39 mentees, a number that continues to grow.

    In some cases, the mentor and mentee could not be more different. “I was not even aware of my sexual orientation in college, let alone ‘out’ to anyone else,” said Robin Wagner, Associate Director for Strategic Planning and Operations in CAPS and mentor of fourth-year Diana Doty.

    “Diana is an activist, leader and drag performer on and off campus. I’m in awe of her energy and self-confidence. By contrast, my partner and I have a pretty tame, ‘suburban family with two kids, two cars, two cats and a dog’ kind of life.”

    For Doty, knowing Wagner has broadened her ideas of what queer activism can be. “One of the most important things I’ve learned from her is that having a family life with kids and pets is a form of activism in itself,” said Doty. “Living her life honestly and choosing not to compromise that to better fit someone else’s mold of what a family ‘should’ look like, puts her on the front lines, just in a different and much more ‘real world’ way.”

    As well as matching adult mentors with younger students, the program participants also strive to build a gay community on campus. “LGBTQ students, especially incoming LGBTQ students, have trouble meeting other LGBTQ people,” said Pizzi, who last year received the Morton-Murphy Award for improving student life in recognition of her work in the mentoring program.

    “Straight people are great,” she said, “but it’s not always comforting to talk to someone about coming out, or about worries that your crush is a homophobe, if that person has never gone through anything like that.”

    According to Forde, no other institution in the United States has a mentoring program like Chicago’s. “A few schools have mentoring programs, but they tend to have students mentoring other students, whereas our mentors are older, so they can really offer a sense of perspective,” she said. “And other schools run mentoring programs in conjunction with the student counseling office, but our program isn’t that narrowly focused––it’s also about having fun.”

    Susan Art, Dean of Students in the College, whose office co-funds the program, said, “We have been quite successful in starting this mentoring program where other schools have failed. This is due, I think, to the particular character of the University––we are a campus where individual differences are respected.”