Building Resilience: Lessons from Trans* in College

Written by
Amma Marfo

Jun 5, 2017

Jun 5, 2017 • by Amma Marfo

What if we all decided to Powerpuff ourselves at the start of each semester?

While it may seem like a random or silly notion to many, use of this popular website that allows users to design online avatars in the style of the Powerpuff Girls cartoon was one recommendation Z Nicolazzo provided for helping trans* students express to their closest allies and accomplices on campus how they see themselves.

And as battles rage both federally and locally over creating space for trans* students with gender-inclusive restrooms, Nicolazzo's book, Trans* in College: Transgender Students' Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion, points out to the reader that the fight in question is much, much bigger than previously imagined.

Hir book employs the narratives of nine trans* students to illustrate the pressure to conform to a binary gender standard (what Nicolazzo coins as “compulsory heterogenderism”) and the consequences of not doing so. By juxtaposing the testimony of these nine students over the year-and-a-half span of the study with hir own experience, ze paints a far more detailed picture of the toll inhospitable campus environments can take.

Digital Spaces to Create Identity and Community

The “Powerpuff Yourself” notion was an idea ze shared with me during our conversation about the book, in which we addressed some of the strategies faculty, staff and others working with trans* students could employ to create true community and collegiality with these students. Speaking more about the power that online and virtual environments have to encourage development, ze said:

One of the things that was so striking for me was how these students are using digital landscapes and virtual spaces in amazing, beautiful ways. They're going to YouTube, they're going to Facebook, they're going to Tumblr, to find out who they are and to craft worlds for themselves, to navigate the often really shitty physical environments that campuses provide to them. I think if educators leveraged those online spaces and used them in ways that students either see themselves, or explore who they want to become, then trans* students could do all sorts of fabulous things.

The confidence and hope these spaces can imbue is immeasurable, and often far greater than most of our spaces, processes and personnel are able to provide. Encouraging trans* students to seek out these resources, in concert with ones we might provide, can help us supplement our often-slow work with vibrant and affirming spaces.

Resilience as a Verb

And for the days where these folx may struggle to come to terms with slow progress, or maybe have a negative experience with a peer or faculty member, Nicolazzo introduces the notion of “resilience as a verb,” a tool I found revolutionary. Recognizing that resilience isn't a static characteristic one has but rather a skill that one practices not only helps us change the way we work with students to develop it, but it's forgiving of the moments where tough circumstances or reduced stamina make it harder for us to demonstrate. As Nicolazzo puts it,

It kind of lets us off the hook. “Sometimes we just have ‘C [as in the grade, or average] days,’ and that's okay.” And that we don't have to be 100% perfect or great all the time. I think this recrafting resilience allows us to be OK with having “C days” and recognizing that tomorrow will be better, but today is just a “C day.”

As we examine our policies, practices and facilities for their ability to help trans* students not just survive but thrive, thinking of resilience as a verb pushes us to examine not only what we can provide to facilitate “A days,” but also what bolsters are in place for when students are having “C days.” What can we do to boost them a few grades?

With all of that said, Nicolazzo also offers a caution as we rightfully address the needs of trans* students, a vastly underrepresented population in higher education:

The […] thing is not to frame trans* people as facing massive deficits or always needing to catch up to their cisgender peers. There are ways [of] thinking about [how] queer and trans* people have created worlds for ourselves in really affirmative ways, that we haven't waited around for the federal government or college campuses, or LGBTQ organizations to see us on our own terms.

We've created spaces and we've created worlds for ourselves. For educators to recognize that queer and trans* people are doing that work, to find out about that work and to amplify it, could be really exciting and could help trans* students who aren't aware of those spaces to practice resilience in new and different ways.

Nicolazzo wrote Trans* in College for, as ze puts it, “people who were interested in doing research with and alongside trans* people.” The operative term here, in my estimation, is “with and alongside.” There are portions of this work that trans* individuals will need cisgender allies to help them accomplish, and we all should be willing to accept that role when it's needed. But there are times where we may need to use our influence to advocate for their work, rather than doing our own. Allies turn into accomplices, ceding their power to those who may need to borrow it for a spell until they're provided their own.

Trans* in College is an illuminating and beautifully written read: both for the words and experiences of the student participants and for the analysis and context Nicolazzo provides to make their experiences educational for the reader. By the end, it will galvanize you to work with and alongside this underresearched but vitally important population on our campuses. And remember: this work can be as seismic as overhauling a housing policy or changing the guidelines for homecoming court or as seemingly small as letting students show you their best selves through “Powerpuff Yourself.”