LGBTQ students supported through network

RPI Health Center’s Tara Schuster talks LGBTQ Mentoring Network history, purpose, success

Elizabeth: Tell me about the LGBTQ mentoring network.

Tara: It’s one of our newest programs—it’s newer than the Safe Zone program, which is why we’re trying to get the word out on campus about it. We’re trying to get the word out to everyone, not just students, but faculty and staff as well, because they’re part of the mentoring network.

The Safe Zone program has been around for years, and we’ve revised and revamped it multiple times. The program has been successful—over 5,000 students, staff, and faculty have been through it.

And it’s a nice training to create a foundation for the entire campus community. But we realized that, outside of Safe Zone, Rensselaer Pride Alliance, and Greek Spectrum, there weren’t any support services for LGBTQ students. We were creating awareness through Safe Zone training,we had social groups and advocacy groups through Greek Spectrum and Rensselaer Pride Alliance, but we didn’t have any additional support outside of sending students to the Counseling Center.

Back in 2009, I started doing research and looked at schools across the country and tried to find anything similar to a mentoring network, and I actually found that there wasn’t a lot out there. A lot of models were community organization-based. I found a few that were actually college and university models and they varied. With that research I did on non-profit-type mentoring programs, I met with a core group who I already knew: faculty and staff members who were openly out. I gathered them together, shared my findings, and said this was something our campus could benefit from, because we didn’t really have services other than counseling. A small group of us sat down and created the applications for mentors and for mentees. A mentor would be graduate student, staff member, faculty member, or alum. We haven’t had any alumni so far but we’re certainly open to it. They would have to be local, though.

We identified that the mentee would be an undergraduate or graduate student. Because there are certainly graduate students who may be coming out in that time frame as opposed to during undergraduate.

We didn’t have a budget whatsoever to start with, but we didn’t need one. My job is to provide health services and support to students on campus. So for me, it was pretty easy, but others had to get permission from their supervisors or do it on their own time. So they’re the ones who go above and beyond.

We started out very grassroots and small with about five mentors and two or three mentees, but each year we add on. We advertise through a Facebook page and fliers on campus.

Now we have about twelve mentors in the program, primarily staff. We have one faculty member in our program. There are around ten or eleven mentees.

Elizabeth: That was going to be my next question.

Tara: So we have just about a one-to-one ratio of mentors to mentees, but mentors are able to take more than one mentee. What’s unique about this program is that mentors and mentees aren’t just matched together. All mentors and mentees are interviewed so I can find out their background, experiences, and their personalities and make pairings that are going to last.

We have students that stay in the program anywhere from a semester to all four years.

Elizabeth: When did it start?

Tara: 2009.

Elizabeth: Is it more like a professional relationship between the mentor and the mentee, rather than a friendship?

Tara: We ask the mentors to conduct themselves in a professional manner, but we talk about it more as a friendship. So, this is a friendly face you have on campus.

Typically, mentor and mentee matches will meet every other week on average. My mentee and I meet every week—that’s what we agreed to. I actually see a gay male as my mentee. We allow the mentees to state their preferences of the person they wish to work with—their sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We aren’t always able to match those perfectly—for example, we don’t have any trans-identified mentors right now. We have seen an increase in the number of trans-identified mentees. I have to let them know in the meeting that we don’t have anyone who is transgender, gender-queer, or asexual. If they still want to be part of the program, they can, but what would be their next best choice? At this time, mentors are predominantly gay men, gay women, or bisexual individuals. Our students have been really great—the trans-identified students—they just want that friendly face, that friend, someone they know they can rely on and trust. Even though mentors might not identify as trans, because we’ve been in these shoes longer, we have a lot of connections to the community, we have a lot of friends who may be trans-identified—and this is just for our trans students in the program who can’t necessarily be matched with a trans mentor since we don’t have any.

We’re supposed to maintain a professional rapport—we’re not going to take students out to a bar just because we’re both 21. If you both happen to be at a bar on the weekend with your independent groups of friends, and see each other, so be it, but we ask that people refrain from that.

Friendship is the best way to describe it. My mentee and I have been together for two years now and we have a very strong friendship. When we meet, sometimes we might talk about his sexual orientation, but other times, we’ll talk about classes, the weather, holidays, families, or friends, so you develop this really nice friendship. On average, most mentors and mentees meet for a walk before we eat to get some fresh air and some sunshine. The activities are up to the mentors and mentees, but the most accessible is a meal or coffee, or something like that.

Something new we added last year, which has been highly successful, is coffee hours. Once a month, we have the LGBTQ mentoring network coffee hour where mentors and mentees are all invited. We were given a budget over this past fall through the Health Center. We have a set hour, five o’clock, right after work, so staff and faculty just have to stay an extra hour. Mentees come by to the designated location and hang out. What’s been really great about this, is the mentees get to meet each other. A lot of the times these are the ones who aren’t the out and proud around campus type. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t proud of their identity, but they tend to be the ones who are more quiet or shy. So this is an opportunity for them to get to meet each other, foster friendship, and also for mentees to meet other mentors in the program. Because even though they’re paired with one mentor, they can meet other mentors during the coffee hour and talk and develop friendships with that person, too.

The one big thing that I want to emphasize—because I think there’s a big perception on campus that to be in this program you have to have some issue with your sexuality. We really try to dispel this myth as much as possible, because many of the students in this program are very comfortable with their sexual and gender identity. But they would really love to have a friendly face on campus that they know they can shoot a friendly email to or meet with for lunch. Someone who has walked in their shoes for longer, so that when they have a question about their sexuality or gender identity, they can ask “What was your experience?”

The first few years, students seemed to feel that, “Oh, well, I’m out and I’m proud, so I don’t need a mentor.” My response would be, I’m in my early forties and I still have mentors who I refer to and ask, “Hey, you’ve been in these shoes longer, what was your experience?” It’s really just a friendship.

Certainly, if you don’t want to be in this program, you don’t have to be—we’re not forcing people to! But I want to inform students that you don’t have to have an issue—though you can, it might be that you’re having a really hard time coming out and you’re contemplating coming out to your family.

We always say to all mentors and mentees that mentors are not counselors, and the mentors are advised very clearly where their boundaries are, so if it comes to a situation where the student has counseling needs, they can still meet with that mentee, but need to know when and how to refer them to counseling services when appropriate. That doesn’t mean that some things won’t come up in conversations that are about struggles. Some student have very significant issues—they’re just identifying on the sexual or gender minority spectrum, they’re not really out to family or friends or peers on campus. And then we have students who have been out for years and they really like having that friendly face. They may or may not be involved with some of the social groups on campus. This is just an extra avenue for them.

We do maintain confidentiality of all of our mentees. These names are not shared on campus, they are not shared with other mentees. I’ve talked about my mentee, but I won’t mention his name; I never do.

Mentors can’t be confidential, so the only requirement for being a mentor is that you identify somewhere on the queer spectrum and you have to be out on campus. We can’t take anyone on the mentoring program who isn’t out. We want this to be someone who is out and visible on campus and serve in that way as a role model. It’s not that I don’t respect anyone’s right to choose to keep their gender or sexual identity private. They just can’t be in the mentoring program.

That’s kind of it in a nutshell.

Elizabeth: What kinds of issues do students most often discuss?

Tara: Their families and coming out to them. Many of our students will come out to their family during their time in the program. Gender identity issues are on the rise among our mentees.

We want to continue to grow the program—it’s been slow and steady. We have a tight group of mentors and mentees, but we’re certainly looking to grow. We’re also looking for more faculty. That’s the goal here, to get the word out around campus. We’d like the program to be just as recognizable on campus as Safe Zone training.

Visit the LGBTQ Mentoring Network’s website for more information: