I wasn’t out to most of my family when I arrived at Nichols College. I had intended to spend my days there like I had spent high school—quiet, my head low, invisible enough that no one would notice the transparent closet that accompanied me. It wasn’t that no one in my high school was openly queer or that I would have been in any danger in my hometown had I come out. But like most queer youth, it took me a while to fully accept myself and my identity.
A large part of the process of accepting myself involved Nichols’ Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL), an inclusive organization dedicated to promoting women in business and furthering the advancement of women both on and off campus. One of my humanities professors led the IWL, and she vigorously advocated for students of all genders to join.
Growing up apart from the social norm, I quickly learned to differentiate the safe zones from the dangerous ones. Even on campus, I’ve often felt a sense of judgment from others, not unlike the discomfort I felt in my hometown. But the IWL’s little space, with its warm glow and coffee shop soundtrack, is a safe zone, one of the first I encountered at college. A floor-to-ceiling window fills one wall of the room, and couches and chairs, decorated with handstitched throw pillows, offer the perfect space to sit and engage in conversation. It was here that I grew to accept myself, with my humanities professor as the everlasting voice of reason during heated debates and the IWL’s graduate assistant as a strong-willed role model to many of the undergraduates. Along with attending (and eventually helping host) the IWL’s many events, I, like the seventy-plus other members, learned to call the IWL’s space a second home.
We often take for granted areas like the IWL’s room—a safe space where students can feel truly comfortable with ourselves and speak our minds. It wasn’t until recently, when the IWL’s location and funding were threatened, that I fully understood the value of our space. Picture coming home from work one day and finding that your neighbor has moved into your room, your most personal sanctuary. All that remains is a box of your belongings, moved unceremoniously into the mudroom.
The IWL and other safe campus spaces represent more than just areas where students, especially those from marginalized groups, don’t have to fear retribution and bullying. In many cases, those spaces are our homes, and the people who are part of them are our families. While the IWL’s current location remains a steadfast safe space on campus, its existence as such is still under review. With increasingly diverse student populations, colleges and universities need these areas, whether they are multicultural centers, equity and inclusion areas, or even specialized spaces like centers for student veterans. It’s not enough to confine safe spaces to counseling offices. Students deserve places where they can be themselves and speak and debate without fear of personal attacks—and where every person in the room feels included.
Photo: Maddie Soudant (right) with other students at Nichols College’s Institute for Women’s Leadership. (Credit: Elizabeth Fontaine/Lexxus Andrews)