In higher education, Pride Month is a time to celebrate the diverse identities of our students, but it also presents an opportunity to take stock of how we can better create inclusive spaces for our LGBTQ+ students on our campuses. When having these conversations, it’s important to include discussions of intersectionality (students who are LGBTQ+ and disabled, students who are LGBTQ+ and minorities, etc.), including the experience of international students who identify as LGBTQ+. These students face unique challenges, and understanding these challenges is crucial for higher education professionals in providing better services for all students.
In crafting inclusive spaces for LGBTQ international students, it’s important to remember that there will be no singular shared experience. Some international students may be coming from countries with an equal or even greater level of acceptance than the United States, while others are coming to the United States from areas where the exploration of sexuality or gender identity is discouraged or unsafe. In designing programming for LGBTQ international students, it’s important to remember that they are not a monolith, but for those coming from more repressive countries, studying abroad offers them a chance to develop and explore their authentic selves in a supportive environment.
Unfortunately, many LGBTQ+ international students may encounter unique challenges towards seeking support on campus, including cultural stigmas and lack of awareness about available resources. In some cultures, discussing issues related to sexuality or gender identity may be considered taboo or even dangerous, and as a result, these students may feel isolated, unable to express their true selves, or fearful of judgment from their peers or families. It is crucial for higher education professionals to recognize these challenges and create a safe and inclusive space where students can access support without fear of repercussions.
Nicole Ianieri, Director of the English Language Training Institute at UNC Charlotte, explains that taking this opportunity to create more inclusive environments benefits not only LGBTQ+ international students, but all students: “My assertion is that what supports LGBTQA+ international students actually supports everybody. I mean, it’s kind of universal design. We’re helping a lot of people, but we’re also recognizing that that group has unique needs that need to be addressed as well.” Some ideas to provide comprehensive support and resources tailored to the needs of these students include:
- Establish partnerships across campus. One of the challenges international students face in seeking support is how compartmentalized offices across campuses can be. Ianieri explains, “At least in my experience, many ISSO offices focus on, more than anything else, immigration status… If we’re going to support LGBTQ+ international students, I feel there has to be cross-training across university offices to understand the intercultural dimension. That’s the piece I think we need to focus on. We can’t always meet every single person’s needs, but we can do a better job of communicating with other offices to say, ‘Have you thought about this? Have you considered this?'” Workshops and training sessions can be valuable opportunities for collaboration between offices so staff members can gain a deeper understanding of the specific issues and concerns that LGBTQ+ international students may encounter, including cultural nuances surrounding sexuality and gender identity, intersectionality, and the importance of creating inclusive spaces.
- Make your office a safe space. Even something as simple as including your pronouns in your email signature or including signage inside your office or on your door that shows support for the LGBTQ+ community can be a signal to students that you are a safe person to discuss any challenges with. Ianieri explains, “Make it known. Put up signage, signage that says, “This is a safe spot. You can talk to me. This is confidential. Reiterate whenever you’re meeting with students that this is confidential unless, you know, you express an intention to harm yourself or others. Say it until you’re sick of saying it. Because eventually someone’s going to say, ‘this person is safe.'”
- Provide practical assistance for LGBTQ+ international students navigating their identity in a new country. Providing information about local LGBTQ+ organizations, healthcare providers, legal protections, and counseling services is crucial. International student offices should collaborate with local LGBTQ+ resource centers and other relevant departments to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information is readily available to students. Furthermore, offering counseling services that are knowledgeable about the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals can be instrumental in addressing mental health concerns and promoting well-being.
- Foster support networks specifically designed for LGBTQ+ international students. By encouraging the formation of student-led organizations or affinity groups on campus, staff can help foster a sense of belonging; these groups can organize events, discussions, and cultural exchanges that celebrate diversity and promote a more inclusive campus environment. This can also include collaboration with external organizations and partners; engaging with local LGBTQ+ communities and organizations can provide additional resources and opportunities for networking and mentorship.
- Make it intersectional and year-round. Throughout the year, make sure that events catered towards international students include queer representation and events targeted to LGBTQ+ students include international students. When planning guest speakers, panel discussions, and cultural events, make sure you’re thinking about intersectionality. Incorporating LGBTQ+ resources at orientation is also a good idea, Ianieri asserts: “At international student orientation, which in many institutions is a separate event, have somebody there who is there saying, ‘I’m here. I work with the LGBTQ+ students. I’m confidential’ — stress the confidentiality part — ‘If you need to talk to us, if you’re interested in learning more, here’s my card.’ Give ways that people can be involved without having to out themselves if they don’t want to.”
Creating inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ international students in higher education requires a holistic approach that addresses their unique challenges and celebrates their diverse backgrounds and experiences. By raising awareness, providing support networks, offering practical assistance, fostering dialogue, training staff, and collaborating with external organizations, higher education professionals can pave the way for a more inclusive and empowering educational experience for LGBTQ+ international students. Embracing the intersectionality of their identities and working towards true inclusivity will not only benefit these students, but also enrich the entire campus community.