It's been clear to higher education experts for quite some time that the place to be in Wisconsin for LGBTQ+ students is UW-Eau Claire, recently ranked No. 1 in the state for the third consecutive year.
And according to many students, that standout reputation has spread beyond our state.
Westmont, Illinois, native and second-year theatre arts major Jacquelynne Domin was drawn to UW-Eau Claire, at least in part, by that reputation. Domin referred to a celebrity-like status in the Chicago area for Dr. Christopher Jorgenson and Kallie Friede of the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center at UW-Eau Claire, and knew that this campus was going to be the right choice.
"For me, Eau Claire's reputation was that of a progressive school with an amazing community of people who work for change and acceptance," Domin said. "Learning about Chris and Kallie and all the work they do was highly influential in my choice to come to Eau Claire; meeting them was honestly like meeting celebrities because their names and reputations had made it all the way to me in Chicago. Nowhere else would have offered me the same level of acceptance and openness in my identity that Eau Claire did."
On June 16, BestColleges, in partnership with Campus Pride, released its 2020 rankings for the best campuses for LGBTQ+ students, a dual set of rankings for Best Colleges for LGBTQ+ Students and the Best Colleges for LGBTQ+ Students in Each State. For the third consecutive year, UW-Eau Claire was named best in Wisconsin, and this year made the overall list of top 25, one of only 15 schools in the U.S. to make both lists and one of only five Midwest colleges in the top 25.
The rankings combine BestColleges’ traditional methodology of academic support and affordability data along with the Campus Pride Index score, a comprehensive national rating system that measures LGBTQ-friendly campus life. Campus Pride takes an exhaustive and multifaceted approach, considering eight LGBTQ+ inclusive factors to reach a measurement. The rankings also include descriptions of unique campus resources that provide support to students of various gender and sexual identities.
UW-Eau Claire earned five out of five stars on the Campus Pride Index, recognized in particular for LGBTQ+ support in "institutional commitment, student life, campus safety, and housing and residence life." Programming such as freaQweek, the annual queer film festival; The Fire Ball drag extravaganza; the campus celebration of National Coming Out Day; and LGBTQ+ friendly and inclusive residence hall spaces were just a few of the highlights noted on the Campus Pride website.
At a time when issues of equality and social justice are weighing so heavily on the hearts and minds of the nation, rankings like these can help point to the good work happening at UW-Eau Claire, and how bold leadership really does pay off for students, faculty and staff — a notion shared by Dr. Warren Anderson, vice chancellor for equity, diversity, inclusion and student affairs.
"UW-Eau Claire is proud to be, once again, recognized as the best college or university in the state of Wisconsin for LGBTQ+ students," Anderson said. "Through the work of the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center, our students, faculty and staff live and work in an environment that expands our tremendous efforts around EDI. It is a true testament to the tireless efforts of the staff in the GSRC, led by Christopher Jorgenson and Kallie Friede. While there is still work to do here and in society, I am proud that our collective campus efforts are once again being recognized."
Jorgenson and Friede, who both earned statewide and regional awards in 2019 for their advocacy work (see related story), are proud of the latest recognitions. Both leaders see these rankings as further fuel to continue pushing to bring more equity and inclusivity to campus, especially during this time of unrest and thirst for social justice in the U.S. and worldwide.
"We are thrilled to be ranked Best in State for a third consecutive year," Jorgenson said. "To also be included in Campus Pride’s Top 25 in the United States — one of only of 15 universities in the country to be featured in both rankings — is validating for us. It is also a critical validation for the increasing number of students who seek out UW-Eau Claire for our commitment to queer inclusivity. We owe it to our queer students, faculty and staff to continue honoring the oftentimes difficult queer experience, while carving out equal amounts of time to celebrate who we are.
"To do so against the backdrop of national and global Black Lives Matter protests simply fuels our drive to ensure all queer people feel welcomed and safe at UW-Eau Claire. To challenge whiteness within the queer community, as much as around it. We remain steadfast in our mission to do just that."
In terms of further growth and programming that Jorgenson always keeps on the front burner, his student interns provide much critical insight and experience to help steer the work of the office.
Third year student and GSRC intern Aja St. Germaine, an English major from Eau Claire, is also earning an LGBTQ+ studies certificate. They seek to use their internship opportunity to advocate for even more progress on certain queer issues, along with their oversight of a queer student mentoring program and a queer student magazine called "Out."
"The university has had much success in queer advocacy, but often higher education fails to create a space that will foster intersectional and anti-racist growth as well." St. Germaine said, pointing to more work to be done in consolidating efforts to support services for students who fall into multiple diverse categories, like queer students of color who seek separate services from the GSRC and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
For this and other reasons, resting on laurels after ranking announcements is the last thing to expect from Jorgenson and Friede, both known to repeat the phrase "there is still much work to do here."
Friede, associate student services coordinator for the GSRC, is grateful for the campus culture that fosters GSRC programming, and remains open to ways to forge ahead in their mission.
"The state and national rankings for LGBTQ+ students, including policy, inclusivity and student experience are very exciting," Friede said. "We’re very fortunate at UW-Eau Claire to have really outstanding collaborators, allies and advocates across the university. It allows us to keep our finger on the pulse of what our students need so we can continually improve what we do here for queer students."