My college gave me a writing assignment. Yes, I graduated long ago, and it’s not for any college credits. It is meant to be kept in a binder in a resource center for the LGBTQ students, to represent the voices of alumni. Here is more about the request. This is what I came up with, and I thought I would share it here.
When I started at Macalester in 1987, it was a long time ago and the world was different for LGBTQ people. It was Reagan’s America, with its great cultural Conservative backlash. AIDS was still a virtual death sentence, with the earliest drug therapies just being approved and having imperfect and mixed results. And I had been teetering on the edge of coming out as gay through high school.
Macalester offered me a soft landing as I came out within months of arriving. There was a supportive and active group for LGB people at the time, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to be there during that time of my own growth. For that I am forever grateful.
And I love what has happened since then in terms of the ongoing inclusiveness. I love that Queer, Trans and a whole range of different identities have emerged and been embraced by Macalester. I love that the faculty and staff members with LGBTQ identities are visible and part of the institution. I love that LGBTQ People of Color are more visible and their identities and stories are embraced.
Even though I have never seen one at work, I love the idea of the Identity Collectives, which seem to help people talk through challenges and be supportive of one another while they explore who they are, and especially who they are away from family and interacting with people of different backgrounds.
But with the wonderful things that Macalester can offer, it is still a relatively small community, and one filled with quirky and sometimes awkward personalities. Even on the most supportive campus, you are going to have drama, heartbreak, struggles to feel understood. This is part of the process of figuring out who you are becoming. And that is a beautiful thing.
As wonderful as Macalester can be, there is also the idea there is a Mac bubble and that out in the “real world”, people may not be as accepting. I did worry about that when I was there, and I’m sure many students may wonder about that, too. Maybe you’ve figured out your place at Mac, but what happens when you have to face life beyond that.
First, realize that Mac is real life, at least one version of it. And every place you go from now on will have a somewhat different version of real life, each just as real as the other. Gone are the days when everyone had to fit into a mold of getting a job, getting married, and having children to have a “real life”.
If you teach English in Vietnam or you write a novel while you have two part-time jobs to pay the rent, if you go to graduate school or start your own small business, if you work at Whole Foods or Dunn Brothers, if you become a stock broker or a school teacher – these are all “real life” and every one comes with certain advantages and certain challenges. Living on your own, living with a roommate, moving in with the love of your life – these can all be great and they can be a royal pain to deal with.
But my point is, as heavy as it may be after Macalester, you will be the one making the choices – where to live, where to work, what goals are important now, and which ones can wait. Those big decisions force a thousand other smaller ones.
Macalester experience will help you with the process of thinking certain things through. You will be able to recognize when friends or organizations are really committed to diversity or environmental responsibility and when they’re just giving these issues lip service. And hopefully, you will be able to find friends and colleagues who will recognize and support who you are and who you want to become. They are really out there, sometime in the most unexpected places.
When I was a student, I was sometimes socially awkward, often angry, and even went through a couple major depressive episodes. At times, I blamed Macalester for this, or perhaps for not helping me out more than they did. It certainly is true that the mental health resources that the students have today may have benefited me, and they were not in place back then.
Now, in my mid-forties, I consider myself to be in a good place. I have lived in Chicago for over 20 years now, and it wasn’t until I had been here almost 10 years that I found a group of friends as funky and smart, creative and open-minded as the people I knew at Macalester. Maybe I should have been better about holding onto those wonderful Macalester people, but I had to go and figure out parts of myself first before I really appreciated what I had there and what I left behind.
Macalester people may be really different from you, but for the most part, they will take the time to actually listen when you bring a perspective that is different. Appreciate that while you are there, and when you connect with Macalester people after you have moved on to your next place, because believe me, you will find that in many places in our society, people won’t take the time to really listen.
This was supposed to be a letter of encouragement. I hope that it works to encourage you, in some small way, to appreciate what you have at Macalester and to not be afraid of what comes next. My years since Macalester have been filled with things I never would have imagined when I was a student. My career, my main relationship, my friends, and my hobbies are not at all what I might have pictured, but on most days, I count myself happy and lucky.
All my best,