Pride Month: Georgia College S.T.A.R. Allies pilot students through tough times
O n a dark night, it’s the brightest stars that guide.
This is true of Georgia College’s S.T.A.R. Allies—a campus-wide system of mentors lighting the way for LGBTQ+ students who can face harassment and bullying in addition to the challenges of everyday college life.
Known by the S.T.A.R. Ally sticker on their doors, these confidantes form a constellation of supporters to help navigate students through dark moments.
“It means a lot to our LGBTQ+ students to be able to walk around campus or visit a professor's office hours and see there are individuals visibly willing to support them as an LGBTQ+ person—since that’s not something that can always be counted on,” said Melissa Gerrior, coordinator for LGBTQ+ Programs at the Women’s Center.
Safe Space programs have been on college campuses since the 1990s. They started as a way to educate others on basic LGBTQ+ terminology and ways universities could be more inclusive. In 2019, Georgia College changed its Safe Place program to S.T.A.R. Ally. The acronym for S.T.A.R. more aptly reflects the mission: “Support. Teach. Affirm. Respect.”
S.T.A.R. Ally stickers signal to students there’s a trained and empathetic ear waiting inside. “Someone they can talk to without concern that they’re going to be shunned or met with some other negative response to their identity,” Gerrior said.
Gerrior has trained about 200 faculty, staff and student leaders in the past four years. She points to challenges the LGBTQ+ population often faces on campus and in the community. These include discrimination, healthcare problems and mental health concerns.
During training, participants learn about coming-out, how to listen to and support students and what resources are available to help. A peer facilitator often joins Gerrior to provide faculty with a student perspective.
Shiloh Allen of Rossville, Georgia, is a senior double majoring in philosophy and liberal studies, with a concentration in gender and sexuality, and a minor in women’s studies. Allen liked the small-school atmosphere at Georgia College. When touring the Women’s Center, they knew this was the right place for them.
Allen immediately got involved with Pride Alliance on campus and helped raise funds for the LGBTQ+ Programs. During this time, they learned about the S.T.A.R. Ally program.
Allen knows the value of having someone to talk to in a time of need. Last semester, they were burned out and thinking of dropping out of all their classes. It wasn’t due to a gender or identity issue, but they were struggling just the same.
A faculty member recognized Allen was in trouble and reached out. It felt good knowing someone was there to support them. Without that faculty member, Allen said they would’ve failed all their classes. Instead, Allen changed majors, took more time for themselves and got to a place where they could be successful in school again.
Now, Allen is a student co-facilitator for the S.T.A.R. Ally program. It’s one of their favorite tasks on campus.
“The fact we have programs like this shows there are people at Georgia College who are committed to making LGBTQ+ people feel secure and appreciated on our campus,” they said.
Although Allen’s experience with a mentor was not gender related, many of their friends in the LGBTQ+ community can experience discrimination. This puts them at risk for depression and possible suicide attempts. S.T.A.R. Ally volunteers know how to identify students in crisis and refer them to services.
Programs like S.T.A.R. Ally reduce anxiety, Gerrior said. Just having someone to listen—without fear of judgment—makes students feel safe, giving them a sense of belonging on campus.
Dr. Rob Sumowski has been an associate professor of special education at Georgia College for 12 years. He got involved in Safe Space in 2017 after a rise in hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ population. When the program changed to S.T.A.R. Ally, he stayed on.
Sumowski’s a happy, approachable mentor. His smile and exuberance are contagious.
“No matter who you are, where you’re from or what you believe—there is a place for you here,” Sumowski said. “So, you be you and I’ll be me, and no matter what that looks like for each of us, that’s perfectly OK. It’s cool.”
He likens it to a person jumping into the deep end of a pool and having a moment of panic.
The first reaction is to reach out to the side of the pool for safety.
S.T.A.R. Allies are that solid ground for the LGBTQ+ community.
“S.T.A.R. Ally provides a non-judgmental ear for folks wrestling with who they are, where they belong or questioning their value to the world,” Sumowski said. “We listen. Sometimes we guide students to other resources or simply validate that who they are is already good enough.”
“No one should have to be anybody other than themselves,” he said.
Dr. Kasey Karen, associate professor of biology, is another S.T.A.R. Ally. She took additional training when Safe Space became S.T.A.R. Ally to stay up to date on her knowledge. She often incorporates diversity issues into her courses. Her students know Karen’s comfortable discussing any topic.
“In the last few years, especially, I've been seeing more students having they/them pronouns and being more comfortable bringing up topics related to LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning or Queer, Intersex, Asexual+) issues,” Karen said. “At the same time, we're seeing legislative efforts to limit transgender rights across the country.”
“It is more important now than when I first started to be knowledgeable on the subject,” she said, “to relate to our students more and be more comfortable talking about it and in bringing these topics into the classroom.”
It’s this feeling that someone’s ‘got your back’ that helps LGBTQ+ students out of uncertainty and isolation and into a place of authenticity.
Alumna Katy McKellar, ’22, of Atlanta got her degree at Georgia College in special education. She took a diversity course on Zoom during COVID-19. She appreciated the efforts of professors to become more understanding and aware of their students’ identities.
It’s important for programs like S.T.A.R. Ally to exist, McKellar said. Having a support system for LGBTQ+ students shows Georgia College is committed to making all students feel safe and welcome.
She knocked on a professor’s door when she saw the S.T.A.R. Ally sticker. He helped build her confidence and believe in her ability for success. She no longer felt she had to hide her identity.
After that, she visited her S.T.A.R. Ally regularly.
“I was pleasantly surprised he was not only very accepting of me as a queer student in the education program,” McKellar said, “but that he also supported me and wanted to engage in a discussion with me about how he could help me be successful.”