For many students, university represents a safe, supportive environment in which they can find out more about the LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender) community and their place within it. That might mean simply joining a society and going to social events, or it might mean taking a lead role in organising a local Pride. For some students, decisions about when, where, how and whether to talk about LGBT related achievements and skills in the quest for a graduate job are not easy. In this post Nikki Spalding (HEA Academic Development Officer, email@example.com) explores the experiences of two recent graduates, celebrates their achievements and shares their perspectives.
In June 2015 Maddie Boden (pictured left) won the York University Students’ Union Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her time as LGBTQ Officer, in particular emphasising how she “inculcated in our LGBTQ students a real sense of Pride in their identity, Pride in their community, and Pride in who they are” (YUSU Awards http://www.yusu.org/awards/shortlist). This is a pretty impressive accolade to go with her degree certificate, however, as Maddie explains, this role model status isn’t something she could have predicted.
“I never really expected to get involved with an LGBT society at university. I was in the early stages of coming out during sixth form and I didn’t quite understand what being a part of that sort of group would be like. But during Fresher’s week I noticed that getting involved with activities and societies seemed to be the best way to make the most of your university experience. My first LGBT social event was a pizza party and mixer. I had no idea what to expect and I was incredibly nervous. But by the end of the night, I knew I’d found a group of amazingly dedicated and like-minded activists and, just as importantly, friends for life.
In the interim four years I’ve been a part of some incredible campaigns fighting for the rights of LGBTQ students on campus and lucky enough to have led the LGBTQ Network for two years. Now that I’m looking back on all the things I’ve achieved, I’m confident that being involved with LGBTQ will have positive benefits in my career. I’m already starting to see how it can help with my next step, which is to start work on a PhD. In applying for a PhD, I’m able to list my role as LGBTQ officer in my experiences and skills and since I’m looking to continue my research into queer art history, academics are interested to hear about these achievements. At first, I was hesitant about including this sort of information, mostly because I was worried about being judged by those who might read it. But it’s actually made me a more interesting, experienced and qualified candidate in the job market and now it’s something I talk about with confidence and pride.”
Maddie’s university experience takes the value of ‘extra-curricular activities’ to a whole new level. I met Maddie through York Pride and York LGBT History Month: she has had an impact on York’s LGBT community, far beyond the university campus, by inspiring others to be out, proud and to embrace diversity in all its forms.
On a national level, Stonewall provides a platform for recognising individuals’ LGBT achievements. In 2013 Rosie Ellingham (pictured below) was named Stonewall Young Campaigner of the Year for “running a major campaign to challenge homophobia, which included personal speeches and workshops at schools and colleges across the country”. In fact, it is Rosie’s humility in communicating her achievements and the skills she’s gained and honesty in expressing her anxieties about sharing them with employers that was the initial inspiration for the #HEARmeOUT campaign .
“Last year I graduated with a first class degree in social care work from the University of Bradford, but I also graduated with much more than just a degree. I graduated with a CV full of experience and transferable skills, with the confidence to adapt myself to new situations and with a passion to make a difference. Throughout my time at university I was an active, out and proud member of the LGBT community. I never set out to become so active, but the more I learned about my community, the more I wanted to become involved. The more I volunteered, the more I realised that I was learning invaluable skills in a fun and encouraging environment.
When it came to writing my CV and applying for those graduate jobs I so passionately wanted, I was confident that my skills would get me, at the least, some interviews. But as my applications went out to schools, I heard nothing from them and I began to wonder how much of that was because my experience was so LGBT focused. Had I spent all that time working so hard, just to get rejected without interview and a chance to prove myself? It left me feeling dejected for a while – I don’t want to confine my life to just the LGBT community – I want to be part of bigger things, making a difference to lives of young people, whatever their background.
I began to think about the organisations I was applying to, and I realised that if making a difference is the work I want to do, I can do that, and I can prove that I have already been doing it. Although at first I felt like I was taking the safe option, I soon realised that charities that work for a better future for everyone are committed to all kinds of equality and are the kind of organisations I want to work for. I recently secured a job with a sexual health charity, working in the area of sexual exploitation, an area that I studied, that I know needs more awareness and that really will change lives. I was able to positively talk about all of my LGBT related achievements, as well as the knowledge gained through my degree. It felt so good to have my skills and experiences acknowledged as valuable and I hope this can be a move forward for any future jobs I apply for. Whilst I look forward to widening my experiences, I will always know that my LGBT achievements at university were a vital step on my career ladder.”
In 2014 I attended a ‘role models’ session at the Stonewall Workplace Conference, where Rosie spoke about her aspirations and achievements, as well as her concerns about when, where, how and whether to talk about them during recruitment. I was stunned: if someone who has been nationally recognised by Stonewall is uncertain about highlighting this with potential employers (who should just be feeling lucky to have Rosie as a potential employee!), then what must other LGBT students be thinking and feeling about ‘outing’ themselves through the graduate recruitment process?
We know that “people perform better when they can be themselves” (Stonewall, 2015). What can we do to make sure that all students, graduates and higher education staff not only feel able to be themselves, but also that they feel confident to follow in Maddie and Rosie’s heroic footsteps and embrace all opportunities to be openly proud of their achievements, skills and unique journeys?
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