A Mercer student organization hopes to make the college experience easier for LGBTQ+ students with a new training.
Members of Common Ground, Mercer’s official LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and/or queer, and others) and ally group, launched a voluntary sensitivity training for faculty and staff called Rainbow Connection in 2017 and just rolled out an online version.
“It just helps shape faculty and staff interactions with students to make them more comfortable, to let them know that they have an affirming environment and an ally,” said Cefari Langford, a senior Africana studies and global health studies major and vice president of Common Ground. “So many kids come to college and don’t have an ally or support system.”
Mercer students designed the training manual to reflect the specific experiences, identities and beliefs of LGBTQ+ students at Mercer and took inspiration from curricula at other schools in Georgia and the South, said McPherson Newell, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering and president of Common Ground.
“That’s why it’s such a wonderful initiative, because of the emotion that we put behind it,” Langford said. “We have passion behind our plan. We have a lot of passion behind our purpose.”
Every semester, they assess and update the manual. For instance, they added more information on transgender people before 2019 sessions since a lot of faculty members had questions about what it means to be transgender and respectful language to use when talking to transgender people.
During the training, Rainbow Connection committee members teach participants about a variety of topics, such as common microagressions, intersectionality, use of pronouns, and appropriate verses outdated terminology.
Newell said the goal is for faculty and staff to understand these issues, how to address them if they come up in their classes, and how to create a space where offensive language is not tolerated. Training participants also practice real-world scenarios they might face in their jobs, such as a student confiding in them, and do an activity that parallels the experience of someone coming out as LGBTQ+.
“Mercer has become a more progressive and inclusive institution in the last 15 years, but I also think our student body has changed. Many more of our students are proclaiming LGBTQ+ identities,” said Dr. Amy Nichols-Belo, who teaches international and global studies and encouraged Newell and Langford to take Rainbow Connection online. “I think it’s important for us to meet the diverse needs of our students. We need to be even more aware of how we can support the growth of our students, given that they may not be getting the support that they deserve in other areas of society outside Mercer.”
Newell, who is transgender, said he had a lot of negative experiences with teachers in high school and was scared that college would be similar. His freshman year at Mercer was isolating because he didn’t know many other transgender people on campus, and classmates didn’t understand when he told them what pronouns he uses. But several Mercer faculty members helped him see that the University was a place with accepting and affirming people and that he was meant to be here.
“Your dorm is your home environment, and the classroom is where you’re spending the majority of your awake day. If you’re feeling ostracized, then there’s not really a place to escape from that. It really affects not only people’s academic performance and their mental health, but also retention rates and that sort of thing,” Newell said. “(Rainbow Connection) seemed like it could make that transition experience from high school to college or coming into Mercer easier for people in the future. I wanted to kind of ease that burden for the rest of the LGBTQ+ population.”
The curriculum helps faculty and staff learn how to turn their classrooms and offices into places that are affirming, which helps LGBTQ+ students feel more at home on campus and shows them that they have a support system.
“That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, just trying to make the college experience easier for incoming LGBTQ+ students,” Langford said. “When students can come to college and feel comfortable in their identity … that’s my goal. We’re hopefully creating open dialogue and open spaces in the classroom.”
Participants have called the Rainbow Connection training “a must for all Mercer faculty” and said the conversation was honest, warm and inviting, Newell said.
“We respect the fact that people are spending time out of their busy schedule to make an effort to learn about these issues,” Newell said. “No one’s going to be judged for whether they came in with a lot of prior knowledge or they don’t know any of the correct vocabulary to use. It’s a space for people to learn, and we’re all still learning, us included.”
Dr. Nichols-Belo participated in the Rainbow Connection training last year and found it very valuable. The course did a great job of highlighting the LGBTQ+ perspective, inclusive terminology and what it’s like to be a LGBTQ+ student on campus, she said. Ideally, faculty and staff should attend the training regularly so they can stay up to date as the language changes and evolves.
“Anything we can do to stay more current helps us to support our students,” she said.
Dr. Linda Hensel, biology professor and faculty adviser for Common Ground, has completed the training twice and promotes it to faculty. Mercer staff members care about Mercer students and interact with them just as much as faculty, so it’s important for them to take the training too.
“I am an inclusive educator, and even I struggle with the up-to-date pronouns and up-to-date definitions. There’s been a lot of change in the way we talk about these issues and describe these issues in the last 10 years. If I can’t keep up, I can bet you many of my colleagues don’t know,” Dr. Hensel said.
So far, about 50 Mercer employees have attended the three-hour, in-person training, which is voluntary. The curriculum was also adapted for trainings for resident assistants and public health students.
While well-received, the length and location of the training kept it from being accessible to all Mercer employees initially. In spring 2019, Rainbow Connection committee members sent a video narration of the presentation and a pdf of the manual to 13 people, which led them to create a full-scale online curriculum on Canvas over the summer.
The online training launched Nov. 4, and Mercer employees can join the self-paced course at https://merceru.instructure.com/enroll/H4RAL7. Material from the manual, videos and downloadable resources have been integrated into the Canvas training to make it as comparable an experience as possible to the in-person training, Newell said.
Newell and Langford plan to expand and improve the online course with funding they just received from the Visionary Student Panel, an initiative from the University’s Research That Reaches Out Office that allows undergraduate students to apply for financial assistance for projects that address real-world problems.
They want to make the online training more personal by adding videos that feature Rainbow Connection members and LGBTQ+ students at Mercer, and the funds will help them secure the equipment and talent for those projects. It will also help cover the cost of physical copies of the manual and promotional materials. In addition, Newell and Langford are experimenting with tools that will allow them to have video-conference discussions with participants across the miles.
“[Langford and Newell] are movers and shakers, and they use their agency to make Mercer a better place. That’s a big deal. One word … brave. I adore them,” Dr. Hensel said. “They should really be patted on the back for this. They are doing a big service to the university.”
Photo caption: Cefari Langford (left) and McPherson Newell are the leaders of Mercer student organization Common Ground.