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Together While We’re Apart: Interview with GSC Director Liz Elsen

Image of GSC Director Liz Elson

Image of GSC Director Liz Elson
During the spring semester, the Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) is often abuzz with event planning and daily gatherings as students and staff gear up for discussion groups and big events including the much anticipated Lavender Graduation. Now with nearly all campus operations and activities moving online, the GSC staff continue to connect with students from afar–offering a number of resources and services to help guide them through this difficult time.
We checked in with GSC Director Liz Elsen to learn more about the many measures she and her colleagues are taking to support the Longhorn community amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Go to this HornRaiser page to give to the GSC Crisis Fund.

First and foremost, how are you doing? How have you been navigating this challenging time of transition?

The GSC is doing okay. We miss the sounds of our students hanging out, eating lunch, talking about the books they are reading and the movies they are watching. We miss seeing them popping their heads in to say hi, telling us about something they learned in class or asking a questions about a student group they are in. There is, however, a shorter wait for the microwave here. 🙂

What services/resources are you providing students at this time? And how can they best reach out to the GSC for assistance?

During this transition time, we are hosting some of our normal programming: “The Finding Our Voice Women of Color” and the  “Queer Voice” discussion groups with the Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC) are still happening via ZOOM each week, and we are still having Feminist Friday. Students can make appointments to talk to me,[GSC Program Coordinator] KB, or [GSC Assistant Director] Quỳnh-Hương directly via Zoom by emailing us at gsc@austin.utexas.edu.

We are still responding to professors’ emails about best practices and representing the GSC on committees, doing outreach during classes digitally etc. We are also ramping up or social media presence, as this is the way most of our students are connecting with us right now. Our student staff are writing book and movie reviews online and we are updating our resources to make sure they are all up to date. Quỳnh-Hương is still teaching her Peers for Pride class, but instead of a final performance, they are making a collaborative zine.

How have students been responding to this “new normal?” What are some common challenges they are facing while navigating school remotely?

Students are doing the best they can. There is no one way students are handling isolation. They are all in radically different places than they thought they would be in just a few week ago. Some of them are living with hostile families, some of them don’t have access to steady internet, or they are trying to go to school while homeschooling their kids or siblings. Some of them are worrying about if they will be able to stay in school and some are just feeling lonely.

I’ve heard some of the main challenges are just adjusting to being online learners. It takes a different kind of focus to do work that is often self-guided, and that can be challenging at any time, let alone with all the distractions, fear and panic about a global pandemic. Luckily, many of them are reaching out for help, and Student Emergency Services is rising to the occasion, helping a lot of our students find access to technology, hotspots, food, etc.

For the first time ever, the much anticipated Lavender Graduation is moving online. What will it be like to  see everyone celebrating together, but yet apart?

As you can imagine this is not what we expected for Lav Grad this year. Can we just take a minute to think about what these seniors have already been though? The last four-ish years at UT have not been easy for them. They have made great friends, learned a lot, but there has also been a lot of strife and tragedy for them.

We really wanted to celebrate them in the way that they deserve. We are going to do the best we can with that, sending every student who registers a care package with a rainbow longhorn pin, their stole and tassel, their certificate, and a coupon for a free cupcake to be redeemed at any lav grad in the future they are able to attend. An amazing local artist, Doodle Me Alive, has also agreed to give each graduating senior an art print in their care package. We hope to have videos for the grads to watch, and also we’re going to live-stream a reading of their names so we can cheer from wherever we are. Students can read more about our plans here.

What advice or words of encouragement do you have for the many students experiencing stress and anxiety?

First off, it’s totally normal to feel those feelings in general, and also particularly during this time of major disruption to your schedule, routines, social life, study habits, workflow, disruption of income and nervousness about the health of yourselves and your loved ones. Those feelings are super valid and you are not overreacting if you are feeling anxious, afraid, sad or lonely.

Second, you are for sure not alone. It can feel super intimidating to reach out for help, especially if you are new to it, but it can be so freeing and liberating to connect to community and just say, “I am not okay right now.” CMHC is still supporting students; just call their crisis line or main line to get connected. GSC staff are still right here, we are only a few clicks away—and you might get to see one of our pets if we Zoom. Even if you don’t “need” anything, if you are one of the students who came to the GSC every day (or even if you never went), send us a note because we’d love to hear from you and know how you are doing.

Finally, you deserve to have access to the resources that UT is providing. Many folks of color, queer students and general GSC students don’t want to feel like they are “bothering people” or think that other people have it worse, so they don’t want to be a fuss. They have been told that they are “resilient” and are succeeding “against all odds” and maybe those things are true, but y’all don’t have to be strong all the time. It’s okay to show that you are struggling. The GSC and the MEC are here for you—and you deserve the same resources and support as anyone else. You deserve the world. We are so proud of you.

More info about what to do in a crisis and what resources are available to you can be found here. Students for Equity and Diversity also made a great resource list and we have also been adding things as we find more info as well.