LISTEN 09:54
December 13, 2023

Lauren Feldman (she/they) joined the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education (ODIME) in September as the Assistant Director for Gender Equity and Sexuality. In addition to advocating for the university’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, aromantic, agender, and pansexual (LGBTQIAP+) students, Feldman works with partners around campus to educate the WPI community about gender and sexuality issues. They worked in residential services for eight years before coming to WPI and have undergraduate degrees in psychology and music, as well as a master’s degree in college student affairs. 

Q: What attracted you to this position at WPI?

A: I’m a very students-first person, so everything for me comes back to how I can support students in their college journey. When I was in college we didn’t have a queer resource center or a person who specialized in working with queer and trans students. We didn’t have someone who specialized in women’s issues. We had one multicultural center that had one, maybe two staff members. So I found myself and did my own journey when I was in college, without support. I was able to do it and I’m proud of that journey, but now I’ve realized that I want to provide that support for students. I especially like working with very determined and very ambitious students like those at WPI because I know they’re going to go off and do really cool things in their future, so I want to support them.

Q: What do you see as some of the most pressing issues for the LGBTQIAP+ community on campus and how are you working to address those issues? 

A: We have people who are coming to WPI from all places of understanding and knowledge about gender and sexuality. More and more people are coming out earlier, so there are those who are arriving at college already out with their family and friends. But we also have people who come to college knowing nothing about these topics, and we live in a culture that can be very quick to cancel people who don’t have that knowledge base. 

More specifically, I’ve seen that sexuality seems to be pretty well understood on campus, but gender seems less understood. That’s true in society, too, I think. More people understand ‘gay’ than ‘trans.’ To remedy that is going to take an ongoing conversation, which involves both education and building community. I want to be a resource that’s available for people within both the LGBTQIAP+ community and the larger community at WPI, all while centering joy. 

I’m really trying to help students figure out what it is they’re looking for and then support them in getting those things. I don’t have full answers yet, but I know that we have some really great student groups at WPI and other student groups in the making—all who deserve credit for the community and educational work they are already doing and will continue to do.

Q: Because there are a variety of perspectives on LGBTQIAP+ issues throughout the world, are there special challenges and/or benefits to your work on a campus like ours, with an international student body?

A: Just like the conversation varies in the 50 states, it also varies in different countries. In some countries, queer people have fewer rights than we do in the United States. In some they have the same or different rights. That could mean that people are coming to WPI looking for different types of support, different types of community. It could also mean that there are people coming from countries where they don’t talk about gender and sexuality at all. And, to be fair, the same can be said for some of the U.S. states. So people are coming to campus with very different knowledge bases—and that’s okay. College is a great place to learn about different perspectives. Having those conversations and learning about other people’s experiences can really open up our minds. 

I want to help with the beast that college can be. ... It’s an exploratory time where students are learning not only what they want to do with their careers and the rest of their lives, but also who they are.

Q: How does the ratio in genders enrolling at WPI shape the work you’re doing? Are there ways you plan to partner with admissions to help increase the number of women, for example? 

A: This is an interesting conversation because by definition, ratios tend to be binary. In this case, men and women. So my question is how are we including our trans, our nonbinary, gender-fluid, and genderqueer students? Where do they show up in our data? Women are still a minoritized identity, especially within STEM, and women do deserve that support. Trans and nonbinary people are even further left out of that conversation typically. So I like to consider who we can bring into this conversation to make sure that we’re supporting all of our students.

Whichever populations we’re talking about, retention is one of the best forms of recruitment. So if we can show prospective women students and people with minoritized identities based on gender that they’ll have support when they come to WPI, that they’ll be part of a community, that they’ll have opportunities for research and networking, that’s a solid recruitment tactic. We already have lots of student groups—including the Society of Women Engineers and the Period Agenda—that focus on these issues and these communities, but we need to make sure those organizations have the support they need. It’s also important that various WPI websites have helpful information for current and prospective students with resources, programs, etcetera. 

Q: Why do you feel like it’s important for WPI to have this type of position? 

A: Part of it is visibility. When a prospective or current student looks up ‘gender’ or ‘sexuality’ at WPI, they’ll find the Student Resources & Support website or the ODIME website and they’ll see that we have a specific person they can talk with if they want to organize a training for their club or if they want to know what campus is like. 

Another part of this position has to do with advocacy. Historically, higher education as a whole was built for men. And we’ve come a long way since then, but as a society, we still have a long way to go. I don’t think the conversation about gender and sexuality is new at WPI, but I do think the institution is now prioritizing the work to reinvent some systems that were put into place a while ago. My role can help advocate for those changes and really try to make sure WPI is a place where people feel safe while they learn about who they are and explore their identities. 

Just having this position is not going to do all of that immediately, but it does show that these are things people care about at WPI. Also, the fact that this position was created out of student advocacy shows that there is room for institutional response and an openness to change.

Q: Why are you passionate about this work?

A: I am a queer person, and when I was in college I was fortunate that I found community in my sorority and my friend groups, and I had a really nice professor. Having those resources and having people to lean on made college and my coming out process easier. I want to be able to provide that for students, especially given the current political climate and the difficulties it poses for minoritized people. I want to help with the beast that college can be. College is a huge transitional time. It’s an exploratory time where students are learning not only what they want to do with their careers and the rest of their lives, but also who they are, and that can be a really difficult thing to process. 

The fact that I get to do this work every day, even if it’s on a small level, like putting on a program or talking with a student, it’s affirming for me. And I hope it’s affirming for other folks, too. 

This article is one in an occasional series about the people, offices, and services dedicated to supporting WPI students and our community.