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It takes a super-involved and passionate person to lead an NC State community center, and Renee Wells exhibits those qualities and more in her role as GLBT Center director.
Formerly a faculty member at the University of Alabama in English and creative writing, Wells became involved with the LGBT faculty and staff network there. Because there was no center, a group of those faculty and staff began hosting programming, advising student organizations, training allies and doing advocacy work related to changing campus policy and practices to be more inclusive. Seeing an opportunity and a strength with her background in English, which prepared her for arguing persuasively for a cause, she moved into the field of advocacy and diversity work full-time in her next position as assistant director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Michigan Tech and then in her role as GLBT Center director at NC State, becoming very involved in the community and remaining passionate about the work.
With a “students first” philosophy, Wells ensures that the GLBT Center focuses on making the student experience at NC State better. Training for faculty and staff serves to equip them with knowledge and resources to support students and advocate for inclusivity, making sure that students have fewer institutional barriers.
The GLBT Center focuses on intersectional social justice, with all of its programming focusing on multiple aspects of identity and how they impact the student experience. Programming serves to educate and help people develop a better understanding that can make them advocates who are then better able to engage with others using a social justice lens, whether that interaction is between peers or between faculty/staff and students. The GLBT Center also provides community-building for the GLBT community designed to help people make connections and work together.
EDUCAUSE and the Preferred Name Task Force
Wells has also been involved with EDUCAUSE, a national, non-profit organization focused on advancing higher education through IT innovation that provides many resources, events, and initiatives centered around IT.
In 2016, EDUCAUSE assembled a task force of IT experts and subject matter experts to produce an article and supplementing resource around the Preferred Name Policies initiative. The goal was to provide best practices for universities that have decided to implement the policy of allowing students to use a preferred name, and to give other universities points to think about as they begin brainstorming and having conversations about the approach they intend to take.
Wells, having a lens toward supporting the community, was able to bring a different aspect to the table. While having a preferred name policy sounds relatively easy in theory, Wells points out that it is actually very complicated from a technical standpoint. The issues are “less about security, and more about transparency. You want to be transparent with individuals about where they can use their preferred name.”
With preferred name systems, there are legal issues about where the name can appear. On all official and federal documents, such as transcripts, financial aid and anything related to HR (such as on-campus employment and matters that align with federal documents), a student must use their legal name. But for things such as class rosters, Blackboard pages (similar to Moodle), email systems and other places, a student might be able to use a preferred name, and this would prevent outing a trans student to a class, professor or peers. However, different universities have different approaches. NC State is more inclusive; for example, we allow students to update their ID cards with their preferred names.
“I think students need to be aware that they have the option,” explains Wells. “There are a lot of different students who might want to take advantage of this. For trans students, there is a very specific set of needs related to this being their identity, them wanting that identity respected and them wanting to be called by the name that they go by. We also have students who go by a nickname or middle name, and sometimes international students who wish to use different, more American-sounding first name.”
All Are Welcome Here
Wells lent her talents to another community project last year, partnering with the LGBT Center of Raleigh in a video with the executive director of that organization. The video was sponsored by visitRaleigh in an effort to counter a negative public impression of North Carolina following HB2. The goal was to send a message to prospective visitors that the city of Raleigh is an inclusive one.
Wells believes Raleigh is a “highly accepting and open destination” because it is diverse. She states that as people, we are inherently used to engaging with difference, and because Raleigh is a very industry-focused place, we are aware that diversity leads to innovation. She also points out that local businesses are outspoken in their resistance to HB2 and committed to welcoming everyone into their space. “The more people are around diversity, the more they understand that diversity makes things better and not worse.”
While the GLBT Center’s focus is NC State, they also provide training and workshops for the local area. For example, the center receives requests from local business to provide training on how to support employees transitioning in the workplace. “We work to fill the gap of different kinds of services needed in the area,” states Wells. She also adds that the center has provided workshops at WakeMed and Rex about inclusive healthcare, workshops at local high schools about how to support GLBT students and workshops at homeless shelters about how to provide trans-inclusive shelter care.
Wells concludes, “As an institution, we have to keep educating, keep helping people develop more cultural competence and more comfort with engaging with others across difference.” She believes that NC State not only prepares students to go out and make a difference in the world and be more effective in whatever field they work in, but also prepares them to be better citizens wherever they live. When students are better citizens, they are more likely to stand in opposition to policies and practices that are discriminatory or exclusionary.
“Preparing people to have a critical lens and speak up when necessary is part of the work that we do. We don’t just prepare students to be scientists and teachers; we prepare them to be citizens of the world that they live in. And a big piece of that is understanding the value that each of us brings to the table and having a willingness to stand up for everyone at the table and not just for people that we perceive as being just like us.”
Austin Butler is a communications intern in the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity.