Celebrating the Inaugural Class of Rainbow Scholars
While the transition from high school to college can be challenging for any student, those who identify as LGBTQ+ — an acronym denoting a range of sexuality and gender identities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and non-binary — face “unique adversities in university settings,” a recent study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law revealed.
The report found that LGBTQ+ students are twice as likely as their non-LGBTQ+ peers to experience bullying and harassment, both online and in-person, and three times more likely to struggle with their mental health. As a result, they’re more likely to feel disengaged from their campus communities; according to another study, roughly 25% of LGBTQ+ students have contemplated dropping out of school.
Such sobering statistics emphasize the need for targeted programs that not only support and affirm the identities and experiences of LGBTQ+ students, but also cultivate a campus culture that prioritizes allyship and inclusion. This fall, Bentley introduced a new initiative — Rainbow Scholars, a yearlong leadership development program for LGBTQ+ and allied undergraduate students — with precisely these goals in mind.
Established by the Office of Gender and Sexuality Student Programs (GSSP) and the Center for Women and Business (CWB), the program offers LGBTQ+ students and allies the opportunity to “engage more critically and meaningfully with their queer and trans identities as members of our campus community,” says Nana Adu, assistant director of GSSP, who co-manages the program with Dominique Wilburn, assistant director of programs for the CWB. “We provide opportunities for Rainbow Scholars to grow both personally and professionally by developing their knowledge and skills in areas such as self-advocacy, intersectionality, inclusive leadership and community-building.”
Adds Wilburn, “The CWB was excited to co-sponsor this program, as it allows us to leverage the knowledge we’ve gained from our decade of work in the corporate sector.” The Center for Women and Business offers a variety of workshops and training programs that assist companies in fostering more inclusive workplace cultures, with a particular emphasis on intersectionality — that is, how an individual’s multiple social identities, such as race, class, gender and sexual orientation, overlap or “intersect” to confer or deny privilege in accordance with cultural norms. “Our programs emphasize how important and impactful it is for business leaders to lead with empathy and authenticity,” Wilburn says; the Rainbow Scholars program thus “creates a brave space where students can explore how their identities affect their leadership capabilities and learn how to carry their full selves into the workplaces they will eventually inhabit.”
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Adu and Wilburn acknowledge that Bentley offers other programs and events that support and celebrate the university’s LGBTQ+ community, including PRIDE, a student-run organization known for its signature drag bingo night and queer prom; a mentoring program coordinated by PRIDE and GSSP that pairs LGBTQ+ students with faculty and staff; and an annual Rainbow Luncheon, hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and PRIDE, which features nationally recognized guest speakers and recognizes Bentley community members for their allyship and advocacy.
But as Adu also notes, “Not every student who’s a member of the LGBTQ+ community at Bentley feels comfortable or wants to attend these larger public events, for various respected reasons.” The Rainbow Scholars Program thus provides an “additional avenue for exploring gender and sexuality,” she explains, “creating space for students who want to explore these topics in a more structured way, and as part of a closer-knit community.”
The inaugural class of Rainbow Scholars consisted of 10 students. One of them was Cassie Butch ’23, a student in Bentley’s Honors Program who graduated summa cum laude in May with a degree in Actuarial Science and minor in Data Analytics. “As a senior whose college experience was interrupted by COVID, I felt a bit disconnected from Bentley’s queer community,” she says. “The Rainbow Scholars program seemed an ideal way to connect with other LGBTQ+ student leaders.”
Throughout the academic year, Rainbow Scholars attended workshops and dialogue sessions on a variety of topics, such as queer media representation, intersectional leadership development and how to navigate being out while studying abroad. But for Butch, “my biggest takeaway was learning how to be queer in the workplace. We had several discussions about intersectional leadership and met with LGBTQ+ professionals. Getting the opportunity to see queer visibility was huge to me, as was understanding the importance of authenticity, the necessity of acknowledging privilege and the power of being an active ally as I move forward in my professional career.”
Ellie MacMillan ’24 — a Public Policy major and co-founder of Bentley Active Minds (BAM), the university’s first student organization dedicated to mental health awareness and education — also found the program empowering. “I wasn’t really involved in the LGBTQIA+ community before this year,” she says. “When I first came to Bentley, I just assumed I wouldn’t be accepted as myself.” For MacMillan, becoming a Rainbow Scholar offered an opportunity to “explore more of my own identities and learn how to advocate for myself and others.” One notable example: Inspired by a conversation with a fellow Rainbow Scholar, MacMillan, who serves as vice president of Bentley’s Student Government Association, worked with university administrators to create a single-stall shower for gender-nonconforming students, which opens in Miller Hall next fall.
In April, MacMillan and her fellow Rainbow Scholars hosted the university’s first-ever Rainbow Conference, engaging the wider Bentley community in discussions about how to cultivate a more inclusive campus culture. Working in teams, students led interactive sessions on a variety of topics, including the importance of allyship and global LGBTQ+ perspectives. MacMillan’s session, which she co-presented with Butch, provided specific examples of actions faculty members can take — from acknowledging preferred names and pronouns of gender-nonconforming students to incorporating LGBTQ+ voices and experiences in their curricula — to ensure that students feel welcomed and respected in their classrooms.
Butch and MacMillan are proud to be among Bentley’s first class of Rainbow Scholars and hope the program will continue to be offered to future Falcons. “Many people assume that Bentley isn’t queer-friendly because it’s a business school,” says Butch. “But programs like Rainbow Scholars work to remove that stereotype, showing incoming students that not only is there a visible LGBTQ+ community on campus, but that the university supports it.”