Mia-Kay Fuller headshot

A Q&A with Mia-Kay Fuller

WPI’s inaugural assistant director for gender equity and sexuality talks about helping students to voice what they already know inside

Mia-Kay Fuller has worked in what’s now the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education (ODIME) since January 2020 but, thanks to recent restructuring of roles in the office, recently began focusing on issues related to gender equity and sexuality. This includes leading advocacy and educational programming for the university’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, aromantic, agender, and pansexual (LGBTQIAP+) students and alumni. In addition, Fuller oversees initiatives to strengthen gender equity on campus and works with students of all genders.

Q: Why did WPI reshape your previous position to focus more directly on gender equity and sexuality?

A: For a long time, there were little pockets of people on campus advocating for and supporting LGBTQIAP+ students, but WPI hasn’t had an “official” position like this before. Then in 2021 a number of queer and trans students on campus developed a list of initiatives that would better support LGBTQIAP+ students. Plus, the first pillar of the Lead with Purpose strategic plan specifically mentions increasing our capacity to support marginalized students.

From the time I started at WPI, I had worked on some smaller initiatives related to LGBTQIAP+ issues. I connected with the Alliance and helped push out some resource materials and updated our website. When Arnold Lane became director of ODIME last year, he reorganized the office by creating strategic alignments so that each of the assistant directors has an area to focus on. This will allow us to have a wider reach when it comes to supporting students. So along with my new title, I’ve been given a lot of creative freedom to morph this role into what I want it to be, what students want it to be, and what WPI needs it to be.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for WPI to have this kind of position?

A: Students naturally gravitate toward folks that they can see themselves in or who understand parts of their experience. On top of that, having someone focused on these initiatives allows for more efficiency. We know there are already people doing amazing things in these areas, and my reconfigured position lets us coordinate all those efforts and do campus-wide what students are asking for.

Centralizing these efforts and giving them a name also shows that WPI is dedicated to supporting marginalized students within these areas specifically. That’s massive—and helps increase our outreach for students in the future. When students look up “diversity” or “gender” or “LGBTQ” on our website, now they’ll see there’s a staff member dedicated to these issues. That helps WPI really, truly live out its values.

Centralizing these efforts and giving them a name shows that WPI is dedicated to supporting marginalized students.

Q: What do you currently see as the most pressing issues for the LGBTQIAP+ community on campus?

A: I think there are two. The first is educating people about various sexual orientations and gender identities and about how society—and thus the microcosm of WPI—directly impacts those identities. The second big issue on campus is addressing the guilt of doing things “wrong” when it comes to interacting with folks in the LGBTQIAP+ community.

Q: How do you address that guilt? And does that process help students become better advocates and allies?

A: In some of our trainings we explicitly say, “If you make a mistake, apologize and move on so that you don’t take that guilt and make it about you instead of the other person.” In other trainings we tell students to take a beat to challenge the assumptions that they make about their peers or whomever and instead get to know who people really are and where they’re coming from and what their lives are like.

People are so nervous about getting it wrong and feel guilty for having natural thoughts. We naturally want to box people into gender and race categories. Our brains love that. So the first thing we do in our trainings is to say, “It’s okay.” Then we do some activities that challenge students to think differently.

Recently we did an activity where folks wrote down facts about themselves on index cards but didn’t include their names. We shuffled up all the cards and passed them back out. We told the students that they had to find the match to their index card. So they literally had to make assumptions about who fit what index card. And we made the person on the receiving end read the index card, so people not only made assumptions about others but also felt the discomfort of having assumptions thrust upon them. Once that activity was finished, we asked, “What can we do to prevent this from happening in the future? How do we challenge our own assumptions?” Students have so many tips and tricks. They’re already thinking about these things and are actively working to stop themselves from having these thoughts.

But it’s still important to get them into a space where they feel that discomfort and are able to practice responding to it so that when it happens in real life, they know exactly how they want to respond. That’s what all of our training activities are for—to really place you in that environment so you can come up with your own solutions. And if people feel like they don’t have any solutions, we’ll offer some. But for the most part, people already know.

In trainings, we tell students to take a beat to challenge the assumptions that they make about their peers … and instead get to know who people really are.

Q: Do you also work with students on the receiving end of those interactions to help them respond effectively?

A: A lot of students find themselves in those positions all the time and they already know how they want to respond. Whether or not they make the active choice to speak up in the moment is completely up to them, and it’s usually based on the power structure or environment they find themselves in. Say, for example, you’re with your team or your club. In that environment, are you going to confront an individual if they refer to you with the wrong gender? Maybe not.

Q: Why are you passionate about this work?

A: When I was an undergraduate student, I really found myself through student leadership. I thought it was just awesome to be able to help students and to see them grow. I enrolled in Salem State’s master’s program in higher education in student affairs, and while I was there I worked in the university’s diversity and multicultural affairs office. I was the only white person in the space, which was the first time that’s ever happened to me. At that point my light bulb was very dimly lit in terms of social justice consciousness and oppressive systems. I identified as queer and cared about caring for other queer students.

Then I did the work. I went through a lot of white identity development and I gained a lot of knowledge. And once that light bulb is fully on, you can’t turn it off. I learned that I have the capacity to make change in this environment, through this role. In every area that I’ve worked within student affairs, I have been able to push forth initiatives that have, in some way, changed the institution where I’m working—which has then inherently changed the structure of education at that institution since students are supported in a different way as a result. If I have a hand in helping students be successful and graduate knowing that they have the world at their feet, that’s incredible. That’s my way to give back to society.

Every day, when I look at a student, I see one of thousands that I want to impact in some way. And the coolest part is that it’s mostly a lot of active listening. It’s just me listening to what students want, because they already know. They know how they are impacted by the existing systems and structures, and I just help them identify ways to make WPI a space where they—and future students—feel welcome.