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UMGC Global Media Center
Pride Month Panel Focuses on Freedom and Inclusiveness

Alex Kasten
By Alex Kasten

“We’re fortunate to be in an organization where we take time to not only celebrate Pride Month, but also share history,” said Sharon Wilder, vice president and chief diversity and equity officer at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), during remarks to kick off a virtual community event titled “What Does Freedom Mean to You?”

Moderated by Natasha Rodriguez, director of multicultural training and diversity programs at UMGC, the panel discussion was presented in collaboration with UMGC’s LGBTQIA Inclusion Network. It traced the push for diversity and inclusion from the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969—a catalyst for the gay rights movement—to the current effort to cultivate a climate of diversity, openness, understanding and inclusiveness.

Panelists included Chad Whistle, senior director of academic projects for the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology; William Ferrand, a biotechnology student and Air Force veteran who serves as president of the university’s LGBTQ+ student organization; and UMGC success coaches Mardochee Julien-West and Stephanie Urbina. As members of the LGBTQ+ community, they talked about identity and how it intersects with their professional lives, what freedom means to them, and the ways legislation affects their families.

“For me, freedom just means living without fear of persecution or discrimination,” said Julien-West. “My parents are both from Haiti, so growing up I had to suppress a lot of who I was. I just promised myself that I would live 100 percent me and not really worry about what other people think.”

Whistle and his husband both come from strong religious families in conservative parts of the country. He said freedom for them means living authentically. “Most of my focus now is on my son and the freedoms that he has because of me and because of the community in which we live,” he said.

For Urbina, “Freedom is also working towards continuing to liberate others who may not have the same amount of freedom as you.” She said that might include joining a local protest or sharing relevant information online.

A discussion on navigating the political landscape in Maryland and elsewhere sparked emotion and concern. Panelists agreed that they must continue to monitor new and emerging legislation and how it might affect their families.

“In the Air Force, I lived all over, some places significantly more progressive than others,” said Ferrand. “It’s just something that is always present, that laws could change, and that people could repeal something that could affect your life.”

Whistle underscored that what people might encounter can differ by state.

“If my husband and I wanted to move to Florida or Kentucky, where we’ve lived in the past, we would have to think about the schools we would send our son to or the dynamics that he would encounter in those states or scenarios,” said Whistle. “We would have to ask whether we feel safe here with the legislation or with the political climate.”

Julien-West, also a parent in a same-sex marriage, talked of a vicious cycle of fear. “When a bill comes out you kind of freeze thinking about what the next 10 moves are going to be,” she said.

The concluded with a discussion about the intersection of identity and work and how revealing personal details may help colleagues or students overcome their own challenges.

“As a success coach at UMGC, my identity doesn’t come up often,” said Urbina. “But every now and then, if we’re able to connect on that, it’s just another safe space that we can provide our students.”

When teaching, Whistle said it’s easy to bypass discussion of his personal life because he wants to focus on academic content. “But if I’m talking to a student face to face or over Zoom or having a real conversation, I might make a statement about having a family with a husband and all of the more human aspects of who I am as an individual so they can have some more connection with me,” he noted.

Julien-West, who is also deaf, said her identities have allowed her to better connect with students as a success coach.

“I’m a lesbian, but also there are the other layers of being Black and being deaf,” she said. “A student may not be queer, but if they’re Black I understand how systemic racism works and how it doesn’t play in our favor and could make education hard. Or if they have a disability and they don’t know how to access services, then I can be that extra resource for them.”

Looking into the future, panelists offered suggestions for making UMGC even more inclusive, including enhancing support services and faculty development. They said counselors and faculty who are equipped to support students in the LGBTQ+ community—including those who may intersect with other communities, such as people of color—will help students belong and feel heard.