Being exposed to diverse perspectives and experiences is an important part of college. And students play a key role in cultivating this environment.
Eli Hess is one of these students. A liberal studies major who graduated in 2014 from Portland State, they returned as a postbaccalaureate (seeking a second bachelor’s degree). Now they’re taking classes toward a degree in social work.
As a queer and non-binary person, Eli always had advocacy on their mind. “Social justice is a big part of my world. That started to fall into place once I got involved again at PSU, with Illuminate and the Queer Resource Center.”
With the help of students like Eli and the thriving LGBTQ+ community in Portland, PSU is consistently ranked among the top 30 LGBTQ+ friendly colleges in the nation by College Choice and Campus Pride. This welcoming environment is what made Eli initially interested in PSU. It’s proximity to downtown and extensive programs were a bonus.
Growing up in Portland, Eli went to small magnet schools specializing in art. They graduated from high school a year early and had plans to take a gap year before going to college. “I got anxious about taking time away from school and applied to PSU. I liked the idea of going to a large college that’s integrated with what’s happening downtown. I would have access to a broad range of topics and ideas.”
They took classes in many areas, from music to Spanish to queer studies. PSU’s gender, sexuality and queer studies major didn’t exist at the time. But that didn’t stop Eli—they majored in liberal studies, which allowed them the flexibility to take various sexuality and queer studies classes.
A few years after graduating, Eli got a hankering to go back to college. They returned to PSU to take writing classes while volunteering at Call to Safety, a domestic and sexual violence crisis line serving the Portland area.
Eli started looking for opportunities to advocate for students on campus. They began working as a Peer Educator for Illuminate, a program through PSU’s Center for Health and Counseling (SHAC). It sheds light on the social injustices that lead to sexual and relationship violence and creates social change through prevention programming.
Illuminate holds events on campus, like Denim Day, a campaign that asks students, faculty and staff to wear denim to spread awareness about sexual violence.
The program also hosts workshops on topics like bystander intervention, anti-oppression and consent. “We even meet with the athletic teams twice per year. We tailor workshops to specifically reflect how sports culture functions within our larger social structure. It’s discussion-based, giving athletes the opportunity to talk about their narratives and listen to their peers,” says Eli.
Then, Eli had that lightbulb moment. “I thought to myself, ‘oh, social work. This is what I want to do.’ Social work has always been in the back of my mind since my dad got his Master of Social Work from Portland State.”
Eli is now working on their bachelor’s in social work. They hope to earn their master’s in one year through the advanced standing option.
“I trust PSU specifically for social work. It’s one of the few social work programs in the state and it’s consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation,” says Eli.
Eli’s advocacy on campus continued to grow. While working for Illuminate, Eli made connections with people in the Queer Resource Center (QRC), a resource for LGBTQ+ students that provides community spaces, hosts events and offers academic and personal support. They worked in a desk staff position for two terms before becoming the Trans Student Resource and Retention Coordinator.
“I’m working exclusively with trans students,” says Eli. “The position provides these students with the resources they need in order to thrive here. I’m a part of a team creating space for queer and trans folks to feel safe and recognized. It’s important to foster a community where they’re seen and not just reduced to one part of their identity.”
Students visiting the QRC will find a comfortable lounge area, computer workstations with free printing and an LGBTQ+ lending library, which features clearly marked sections for authors who are trans, POC and more. Students can mingle with their peers or talk with confidential advocates. The QRC hosts events throughout the year, from campuswide pride celebrations to small LGBTQ+ movie nights. See list of events.
“I really like working in education, especially from a student affairs perspective. It’s important to promote social justice in education. We must create ways for students who wouldn’t take a gender and sexuality class to learn about biases and intersectionality.”
Eli’s long-term goal is to continue working in higher education. They’re considering transitioning into the academic side after earning a doctorate.
Eli recognizes that part of social justice is reevaluating and continuing to educate oneself. “Education and community are the roots of social change. Learning is my thing. I view my community and my relationships as educational as well. We can learn so much from each other.”