Shaniya Mesilien ‘22, grew up in Norwalk, Conn., and always knew she wanted to go to Southern Connecticut State University, but when she arrived on campus, the typically shy student found herself not 100 percent sure where she fit in.
“I just wasn’t so sure how to get involved,” Mesilien, an exercise science major, said.
Living on campus and getting suggestions from the Resident Advisers helped, as did learning more about organizations and clubs, like when Mesilien went to a student Involvement Fair and talked to club organizers first-hand.
“I went to all the different tables and I came across the SAGE Center and I took their information,” she said. “I just knew that getting involved and getting to know people in my community really spoke to me. I absolutely felt a sense of community at the SAGE Center.”
The Sexuality and Gender Equality (SAGE) Center is a collaborative space in the Adanti Student Center for the LGBTQ+ community. Assistant Director, Office of Student Conduct and Civic Responsibility, and Coordinator Jenna Retort runs the space, assisted by graduate intern Aaron Morabito.
Programs like the Ally In Progress initiative, which “recognizes that being an ally and fostering inclusion are ongoing processes,” and on-and off-campus resources that help students take care of their social, emotional, and physical well-being are just a few of the supportive services offered.
The center also houses the Open Door Closet, a large collection of clothing, shoes, accessories, wigs, and toiletries and collaborates with clubs on campus, especially the LGBTQIA+ Prism Club, a student-run organization that “works toward educational awareness, promotes acceptance and fairness in campus policies and student attitudes, and maintains a supportive network.”
“People stop in and say hello or use the center as a study space,” Mesilien said. “It’s a great space to meet people and get to know them better. I fell in love with Southern and I felt like I wanted to do more. I asked Jenna and Aaron if they needed volunteers. I just reached out. I wanted to make a bigger impact.”
Sophomore year, Mesilien became a Diversity Peer Educator in the Multicultural Center (MCC). It’s a role she helped start with Dian Brown-Albert, coordinator of Multicultural Student Activities.
The MCC, also in the Adanti Student Center, is open to all students, faculty, staff and community members while supporting and celebrating groups like African and African American, Asian and Asian American, American Indian/Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Women, Men, and Faith communities.
“Diversity Peer Educators are trained facilitators who talk about different social injustices in our communities and inclusion topics on Southern’s campus,” Mesilien said. “We host a lot of events and discussions. It’s a leadership opportunity and it’s helped me to learn more about racial and gender issues, religion, and so much more.”
At the SAGE Center Mesilien also became a SAGE Ambassador, a peer program that was developed as a leadership opportunity for students to foster inclusion.
According to Retort, the ambassador position is meaningful and skill-building.
“When I first started in the SAGE Center [in 2016] we had an opportunity to create leadership positions so students could develop their skills throughout their time at Southern and beyond,” Retort said. “That’s what the ambassador position is — it’s a tangible way for students to grow their skills and to present relevant information to others. It’s a way for students to serve as a resource for students but also to offer peer support. SAGE Ambassadors have offered the LGBTQ+ community a chance for students to see themselves in that position.”
Mesilien’s offer to volunteer before she became an ambassador is illustrative of the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-jump-in type of energy the center embraces.
“The SAGE Center has really grown in the last five years,” Retort said. “We always have students who have offered that they have a unique experience or perspective they want to share via volunteer work or field work, or by assisting with programs or initiatives.”
Speaking engagements and facilitations are part of the ambassador role, too, and that’s how Mesilien really came to understand how much she’d grown since she first stepped onto campus.
“I never thought I would be speaking in front of groups of people,” she said. “Prior to coming to Southern, I wasn’t as open about myself but the inclusive environment is so amazing, I became more comfortable in my own skin. Southern helped me find myself more and embrace who I am as a person. These topics — like inclusion and acceptance — are things I can speak on for the rest of my life. I appreciate the opportunity to educate others. I’ve learned a lot, and now I can share it. I just want to continue to spread that message.”