I walk across campus alongside 5-10 other families on my first tour as a prospective student of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In the first few steps the coordinate system and the “four main differences of The Colleges” are mentioned. It sounds really cool that women have unique opportunities, but for some reason I find myself deeply unnerved. At this point in my life I cannot quite put my finger on why. My admissions officer knows I am slightly nervous about being on this campus as I do not identify as straight. So once my tour concludes, I eat lunch with my admissions officer and an LGBTQ+ identifying community member. They express how accepting the community has been towards them. On my next visit, I meet professors and students involved in the LGBT studies program. I am put at some sort of ease that there is some form of LGBTQ+-related education here on campus.
Do I forgo an education and mentorships from some of the top scientists in this country to attend another institution that allows me to feel comfortable in my own skin? At this point, I am not sure of how I identify; should I ignore this piece of my developing identity for my education? How would my trans/non-binary friends and counterparts feel, knowing that I am indirectly supporting the binary and gender roles?
I receive a letter in my Scandling mailbox stating that I have been nominated for multiple awards/recognition which will be presented on Moving Up Day. I nearly scream of excitement as I had never been recognized for academic achievement before. It is finally my turn to be appreciated. I quickly realize that these awards are not meant for me. They are meant for the female analog of my existence. I now realize I am not a woman in science. I am a non-binary person in science. What does that mean in the present and for my future?
Can I be okay with myself if I accept an award meant for a William Smith student in my particular field of science? Should I just accept the awards and move on with my life? Should I wear a dress- a piece of clothing that I feel comfortable in, but one that is extremely gendered- to hide my hesitation and distain for the situation in which I have been placed? I do not feel comfortable being a part of Hobart ceremonies either as I present, in a physical way and in my fashion sense, as female. So how do I come to terms that neither ceremony is meant for me? If I do attend, do I decline the William Smith Moving Up Day bracelet as a small rejection of the situation?
A current O’Laughlin Ambassador (the new name for Admissions student workers) tells me about a tour they gave the other day. (The pronoun “they” or other information has been used to address all people mentioned in this piece in order to protect the identity of each person mentioned.) A parent asked, “What do we do if my student identifies as non-binary?” The tour guide described how they were taken aback and eventually responded with something along the lines of, “The Colleges are working hard to take these issues into account and find a solution to this pressing issue.” They went on to say that they went to one of the professional staff members to ask what the options were. In short, the response stated that the student must apply to either Hobart or William Smith. If they could not choose and feel comfortable with that, then this school may not be right for them.
In another conversation, an O’Laughlin Ambassador pointed me to the tour guide manual. The only place where trans/non-binary applicants are mentioned is in a section called the Tough Questions which provides tour guides with hard questions that have been asked in the past, but it does not provide answers. Some questions include, “Is HWS too small of a school? What would you change about HWS? How much do you pay, doesn’t the price tag seem steep? Do you have a lot of loans?” I am addressed in the last question on the list which states, “What college do non-binary students belong to?” The tour guide mentioned how they have been instructed to note that students must apply to one of the Colleges, but this is not formally written anywhere in the manual. Otherwise, there is no overt mention of trans/non-binary students.
Am I only a tough question? Can I remain at a school that doesn’t find value in making me more than an unanswered question?
I look at the preferred pronoun page on the registrar’s website. I see options from “he/him/his,” and “she/her/hers,” to “they/them/theirs, Ze/Zie/Hir, or use name only.” I decide to hold off on filling out this sheet, but I decide to have my close friends use my name instead of any form of a pronoun. I finally feel at ease. I never identified as a woman or as a man, but I never felt comfortable using “they.” I am not a he, she, or they. I am me.
How can the Colleges offer such diverse options for gender identity, but by nature inadvertently enforce the binary? Would I out myself by filling out this form?
I fill out the Common Application planning on sending out transfer applications. I do not want to leave, but I am not comfortable staying. Over my time here I have been able to discover a more complex identity, but this environment has not made this discovery process an easy one. For there are days I debate whether or not I should transfer.
Do I leave and make myself feel comfortable despite the fact that I would lose mentorships from some of the top scientists and mathematicians in the country? Do I leave a place where I have the opportunity to complete career-changing research for my emotional wellbeing? Or do I stay and feel uncomfortable to try and facilitate change? Do I stay in a place where I am nearly fearful of my peers’ reactions to try to make the future better for the next cohort of HWS students? Do I put my physical safety and emotional wellbeing at risk for HWS?
We first must work to gain truth about what being two separate institutions means for our funding, accreditation, etc. Only then can we discuss possible solutions. This does not mean we must completely rid the institution of all things coordinate, nor does it mean we must keep the coordinate system in any capacity. It simply means we must entertain the possibility of all solutions, the extremes as well as the in-betweens.
I sit now writing this article realizing that the issue of the coordinate system is one that impacts me deeply as a closeted/questioning non-binary person. However, my identity is not the only issue that should be entertained when discussing the binary nature of the coordinate system. We are using my identity as a cover for all the other issues resulting from a binary system. What about racial relations on campus? What about the reinforced gender roles that people who identify as male/female, man/women are expected to live up to by their peers? What about the achievement gap between genders? What about the socioeconomic implications and disparities of the system? What about how our admissions pool is affected? Could we be a more successful or higher-ranking institution?
My identity may be the place to start this conversation, but it is not where we should end.