Oct. 11, 2022Print | PDF
“I need to be treated as a person and respected for all of my intersections. Then we can talk about thriving.”
This quote, from a Two-Spirit, asexual, disabled student at an Ontario university, reflects a common sentiment in a series of new reports sharing the results of the Thriving on Campus study. Led by Wilfrid Laurier University’s Michael Woodford, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work, Thriving on Campus is the first study of its kind to explore the experiences, strengths, well-being and academic development of diverse 2SLGBTQ+ university students throughout Ontario.
“To achieve equity on campuses for diverse 2SLGBTQ+ students, we have to understand their experiences and what campuses can do to make a difference,” says Woodford.
In this Q&A, Woodford offers insights into the study’s findings and how to help students thrive.
We had almost four thousand students from across Ontario in our survey sample, which is incredibly large for this kind of research. A lot of this research tends to be done at one institution. The fact that we had students from every university in Ontario gives us strong insights about the campus climate for 2SLGBTQ+ students and how it shapes their well-being and academic engagement and development.
Integrating the survey with in-depth interviews helped us to better understand students’ experiences beyond the numbers and statistics. The interviews gave students an opportunity to share their stories, what thriving means to them and what campuses can do support diverse 2SLGBTQ+ students.
Also, 29 per cent of our survey participants identify as part of the trans community. Because that’s such a large percentage, we can do more than just compare the experiences of trans students to cisgender students. We can actually say, what are the experiences of the different groups that comprise the trans student community? The study shines a spotlight that doesn’t exist in most research because of the small number of trans participants.
We heard a lot about microaggressions, which are often subtle forms of discrimination coming from even people you consider to be friends. Though subtle, microaggressions involve a negative underlying message. Those situations, like overt bullying, have a cumulative effect on students’ well-being and their studies. For example, trans students who frequently experienced microaggressions were more than three times more likely to seriously consider leaving their university than their peers who rarely faced microaggressions.
In the interviews, students described not seeing themselves represented on their university campuses or in the faculty instructing them. If you’re a new student who is not yet connected to other queer and trans students, where do you go? How do you build community? And if you’re also holding other identifies, such as being a racialized student, how do you find a space where there are other racialized trans students, for example? There are many primarily white spaces on Ontario campuses.
It can be hearing people say, “that’s so gay” or having someone say to you, “I never would’ve thought you were gay!” For trans students, they are seeking sexual health information that is responsive to who they are and their unique needs, yet it’s most often delivered from a cisgender perspective for cisgender bodies. When young people are making the decision to go and talk to a counsellor or get sexual health testing, they may feel that “if you’re going to give me information that I don’t even see myself in, I don’t have a lot of confidence in what you’re saying.”
We don’t know a lot about the intersections of being a queer or trans student who is racialized or disabled, so we intentionally explored the experiences of participants from both of those communities. We relied a lot on qualitative data in those reports, which was important because a lot of what we learned through those interviews was quite eye-opening.
What we heard from both groups is that they experience the additional oppression of ableism and racism, which shapes their well-being and academics. One student shared that she was diagnosed with a disability and required assistance from the accessible learning centre, so now she had to start outing herself as a disabled person in addition to being bisexual.
The interview participants really emphasized the need to look at students holistically. In the classroom, in student centres, in athletics, we need to welcome students to hold their multiple identities.
"Their perspectives are so important and they want to be at the table, helping to make decisions that will impact the services that are available to them."
Something that stood out was that students who have lived in gender-inclusive housing had very positive experiences overall. Similarly, the majority of students who participated in 2SLGBTQ+ student centres or groups found them to be supportive spaces. Those findings can help support other schools that have not yet decided to implement those kinds of initiatives.
Students want to see more gender-inclusive washrooms. In interviews, they reported things like, “I have a research assistant position in this building and there is no gender-inclusive washroom, so I have to plan when I can go to the bathroom.”
There is a need to look at name change and gender-marker change policies. There are barriers that exist, including access to information about how to do it. Students told us that they found the right staff person to push the change through the system, but they shouldn’t have to find the ‘right’ staff person. It should just be a clear and efficient process for everyone.
Before we even began the research, we engaged with the Council of Ontario Universities and got the support of the province’s vice-presidents of Student Affairs. Then when we finished the survey, we delivered individual reports to all of the participating universities sharing what we learned about their students’ experiences and needs. We benchmarked those findings against the provincial sample and other universities of comparable size.
Some universities took that information and started doing things right away, which is great. I’ve heard from administrators saying they need evidence like this to inform what they’re doing. So beginning this month, we are bringing together folks who are responsible for student well-being, inclusion and academic development on their campuses for a three-part virtual conference to help them share information and strategies amongst themselves.
We’ve also worked closely with community partners like the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, and we’ve done a series of webinars to share our findings.
I was involved with our mixed-gender housing initiative, which was really responsive to student needs. I also think we should be celebrating our gender-inclusive bathroom initiatives. We have very clear messaging that people should use the washroom that they feel comfortable in and single-user washrooms are labeled as gender-inclusive.
I was encouraged by the positive feedback about inclusive housing, and I was particularly inspired by the passion that students have for change on their campuses. We always ended the interviews by asking students for definitions of ‘thriving’ and their recommendations, and they shared a lot of suggestions that would really make things better. Their perspectives are so important and they want to be at the table, helping to make decisions that will impact the services that are available to them.