For many students, finding their community is the scariest and hardest thing to do when transitioning to college. For queer and questioning students, this search can feel even more daunting. Since its beginning, the Brandeis Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) has provided a comforting space for students—regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation—to feel as though Brandeis is their home. Julián Cancino, inaugural director of the Gender and Sexuality Center, wrote in an email to The Brandeis Hoot that, “the Gender and Sexuality Center believes that who you love or who you are should not be a barrier to education and, so, we strive to attract and retain LGBTQ students. The Gender and Sexuality Center aims to expand resources and give students the support they need to thrive.” One way that the GSC has expanded said resources and support for students is through the creation of the Pride Reps program.
The Pride Rep program is a year long, compensated peer mentorship program that began this past fall semester with nine undergraduate students holding positions. The program is designed as a leadership development program for students to learn about queer topics, intersectionality, their identities and how to effectively affirm and uplift other students. In the fall, students are given information on the basics of LGBTQ inclusion which also assists the students’ own sense of belonging within their identities. In the spring, students apply the curricula from the fall by branching out to the community, hosting events and drop-in hours. Pride Rep Daphne Ballesteros ’24 states that the spring semester is focused on “how do we then take what we learned and help people with it?”
The introspective aspect of the program is what makes it so unique when compared to other peer mentorship programs on campus. Ballesteros stated in a Zoom interview with The Brandeis Hoot that “[the program] has given me language that I didn’t necessarily have before, and skills and tools on how to take care of yourself as a leader. I feel like that’s something that’s not talked about at all”. Similarly, Pride Rep Sammi Cohen ’22, stated in a Zoom interview “I think a lot of times when we think about leadership it feels sort of by yourself, or independent, which can be kind of scary … but I think I’ve really learned how to utilize my team within this leadership position”. While the program serves to create highly-educated and caring peer mentors, it doesn’t ignore the fact that these students are still students who are often still coming into their own identities. The students learn to collaborate as well as mentor one-on-one in order to give themselves and the student body effective peer assistance.
This personalized seminar-style education has given Pride Reps the tools they need to adequately mentor students with queer and female identities. Even outside of the curriculum itself, the program is engaging and educational for all involved. In a Zoom interview with The Brandeis Hoot, program administrator Eli Sobel stated that “I find that I’m learning just as much from the students, and they are from each other, as they are from me—if not more.” Sobel is the main staff member that runs the Pride Reps program, they not only run the program but they also create the curricula for students, supervise the students, teach, and facilitate discussions. “It’s really rewarding,” Sobel stated about working at the Brandeis GSC and with the Pride Reps, “I love watching people come into themselves, it’s just a tremendous privilege.”
After learning about themselves and the queer community, Pride Reps then use their knowledge for community building and to educate and affirm students. This takes the form of drop-in hours where students can speak to multiple Pride Reps in a casual setting, or schedule one-on-one time if preferred. Additionally, the GSC and the Pride Reps are hosting multiple events this semester such as LGBTQ affirming sex education and an open mic night. Cultivating a thriving intersectional queer and gender affirming community at Brandeis is what both Ballesteros and Cohen state as a goal for their involvement in the Pride Reps program. “I think that having this queer space for people to come to and feel safe in is super important and also more specifically, I think the idea of having a peer mentor available to you specifically to talk about issues surrounding gender, sexuality, feminism … is really important and something that I think I could’ve benefitted a lot from,” Cohen told The Hoot. “I hope to make the GSC a more inclusive space for queer people of color on campus. I find the GSC to be like a home, I hope more people can get the benefits of that”, stated Ballesteros.
As this first year of the program has continued to prove successful, the Pride Reps and Sobel have big plans for the future of the GSC and the Pride Reps program. Cohen mentions how the peer mentorship program will hopefully be viewed similarly to other peer support on campus in the future, “I would love for the GSC to be on the same level of PARC in terms of how we are discussed and viewed within the Brandeis community,” they said, “I want the GSC to become a bigger presence on campus.” Sobel hopes to create a “thriving peer mentorship program” at Brandeis. They hope to “increase the amount of training that Pride Reps do, and perhaps collaborate with the student union and get trainings required for all club leaders, for example.” These goals would help make Brandeis a more inclusive place for students regardless of their gender and sexuality, as well as build the number of queer students who utilize the GSC’s space and resources. But, Sobel discussed how the GSC is largely constrained by funding and staffing shortages at the moment. “It’s such a shame to turn students away because the kind of services or program we are offering doesn’t really exist anywhere else on this campus.” Sobel mentioned about the number of students who apply to work at the GSC that they are unable to fund and supervise due to these limitations. “There are similar things but there isn’t the same kind of focus on self development as much.. it’s really hard to find so I love this program would love to make it bigger.”
Despite these few setbacks, the Pride Reps program is succeeding in giving students the community they need. The Reps encourage students to drop by and reach out, “whether you have a formal question or topic that you want to discuss or whether you’re just looking for community,” said Sobel. Queer, female, both or neither, the Gender and Sexuality Center provides a great resource and source of kindness for all students at Brandeis. Cohen mentioned how finding yourself and understanding your identities can be hard and isolating but “there truly are so many people who are so kind and so willing to talk… there is a space for you here.”
Sign up to meet with a Pride Rep or drop by their Office Hours from 4-6 p.m. Monday to Friday in the GSC.