High schoolers converge at Brandeis for first-of-its-kind LGBTQIA+ academic program

Photo/Tanya Capawana

A student presents research on LGBTQIA+ issues in America.

Affirmation, education, friendship and community.

That’s what 24 high school students experienced at Brandeis this June through Queer Academics and Activism (QAA), a first-in-the-nation precollege program about the LGBTQIA+ experience in America.

The scholarly lens students must apply to their work at QAA sets the program apart from similar learning opportunities, as student participants attend lectures with Brandeis faculty, meet distinguished speakers in the LGBTQIA+ field, go on field trips, and conduct case studies. 

QAA, which ran from June 23-28, culminated in a poster session in which students presented their own research on an issue affecting LGBQTIA+ communities in North America.

“It’s interesting to be here, because as a queer person I’ve never had the experience of sitting down in a formal place and have someone go over the history of these issues,” said Evelyn Bernstein, a rising senior from Monmouth County, New Jersey. “I’ve never met people who do queer studies professionally – all I had known previously was what I learned on my own or from people my age. To see how older people approach this, as adults, is really useful.”

“I also consider myself an activist in my hometown, so what I’ve learned here is really useful for me to bring back, so I appreciate that.”

QAA’s first-ever class included high school sophomores, juniors and seniors from 12 U.S. states and Mexico.

student speaking to visitor about poster
Photo/Tanya Capawana

Many students embraced the program’s geographic diversity and credited QAA for providing a support system and a common connection despite their different backgrounds and upbringings.

“I didn’t expect to see students from so many parts of the U.S., or even outside of it, just maybe a bunch of people from Boston and New York, but that’s not the case and it’s really exciting,” said Charlie Apple, a rising sophomore from Corpus Christi, Texas.

“It’s interesting to hear what they deal with locally, and I’ve also never thought of queer studies from a scholarly point of view. So I appreciate the new perspective. It’s a lot better to learn it here than, say, on YouTube, because I’m surrounded by people who are qualified to speak about it and experienced in the field.”

The Office of Precollege Programs and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program designed QAA to teach students about identity concepts in the LGBTQIA+ communities, intersectionality in queer history, and LGBTQIA+ activism, religion, education and community engagement.

“QAA is designed to provide a rich and rewarding academic experience in which high school students can learn from Brandeis faculty members who are experts in the field,” said Sue Marsh, the executive director of Precollege Programs. “That level of historic insight, combined with the social experience that is afforded to students over the course of this week-long program, makes QAA a unique opportunity.”

Students said they were amazed at how much they had learned over the course of the week.

Their mentors, like residential advisor Sierra Dana ’20, felt the teens were modest about their knowledge of LGBTQIA+ issues and were, in fact, an inspiration to the campus community.

poster that reads "education" with regard to L G B T Q I A plus issues
Photo/Tanya Capawana

“I don’t know if it’s me inspiring them,” Dana said. “I’ve been totally blown away by the questions they ask in lectures and the passion they have. They’ve come together and shared their experiences and I’m immensely proud and feel very inspired. I’m not much older than them, but I feel a lot older because I can’t imagine having had a program like this when I was in high school.”

The poster session demonstrated the students’ knowledge and command of what they had learned and researched with the help of Brandeis faculty and staff, and featured a smorgasbord of topics affecting the LGBTQIA+ community.

Apple’s research led to a poster about state laws that prohibit or limit public schools from discussing LGBTQIA+ identities, history or issues – known as “no promo homo laws.”

Bernstein’s project focused on transmedicalism. Other students examined terminology, education, and the nexus of the queer experience and anthropology. Andrea Torres-Everest, a rising senior, wrote a policy proposal for her hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, to adopt gender neutral bathrooms.

“I am an ally, but I was worried before I came that I’d be an outsider in the community,” Torres-Everest said. “I didn’t want to be seen as an intruder, but I’ve been able to get to know this community that’s been here throughout history. There are lessons here that you don’t get at school, which I think is one of the most impressive things about this program.”

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