KALAMAZOO — Graduating into the work world is daunting enough for many college students, but when those students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, the challenges are even greater.
To ease the path for these students in the region, Western Michigan University launched the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender and Ally Career Mentorship Program this month through its Office of Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Student Services. The program matches LBGTA students with LBGTA professionals in Southwest Michigan.
“The mentors will provide support and career-related resources to help the students better prepare for fulfilling their career aspirations once they graduate,” said Jennifer Hsu, WMU LBGT student services office coordinator.
Chris Harris, a mentor and director of the SETA Scholars program at WMU, said his life would have been easier if he’d had someone who could have given him some guidance and worked with him to develop ideas on how he wanted to interact in the business world and society in general.
“I think it’s important to let them know that they have everything inside of them to be successful,” Harris said of the student mentees in the program. “They can leverage those strengths and understand the various gaps they have and what to put in place to navigate that. I want them to know they can fill those gaps with the resources they have.”
Harris, 47, said he didn’t “come out” until he was in his 30s. At the time he was an officer in the United States Air Force and had encounters with a fellow officer at a training installation.
“I knew that my being gay wasn’t going to go away and I had to deal with it,” he said.
Christopher Terkos, a branch manager and vice president with PNC Bank, said he “came out” seven years ago at the age of 31. He said he agreed to be a mentor after Hsu approached him with the idea.
“I think the mentor program is important because the LBGT community has unique needs and those of us who have grown and developed in our careers can give (our mentees) advice on how to bring their whole selves to work,” Terkos said.
Some of the questions individuals who are part of the LBGT community ask as they begin their first job are: Can I admit that I’m part of the LBGT community? Can I talk about dating and my homelife and political issues, some of which may be considered hot button?
Some of their questions may simply deal with day-to-day living, Terkos said. He said it’s important to be who you are at work because that’s how you bring your best ideas.
“It was my employer who let me know it was OK to be myself,” Terkos said. “She has two gay brothers and she was very comfortable talking about her gay family members. She encouraged me to be who I am.”
If young people are comfortable enough to say who they are and they continue to “come out” earlier and earlier, when they are going into an interview they can talk about the fact that they’re part of the LBGT community, Terkos said, adding that they can and should be able to talk about their sexual orientation because that’s at the core of who they are.
The mentorship program officially began with a dinner on Oct. 18 that gave mentors and mentees an opportunity to meet, network and be matched. In addition, keynote presentations were made by Linda Anderson, operations manager of Kellogg’s Battle Creek plant for Morning Foods Ready-To-Eat-Cereal, and Cheryl M. Gilliam, a senior packaging engineer for Kellogg’s packaging innovation and technology department.
Discussions about the mentorship program began in March. Hsu said programs to address the social and economic barriers faced by LBGT students were already underway. In Michigan, she said, individuals who identify as being part of the LBGT community can be fired from their jobs or denied accommodation simply because of their sexual orientation.
Hsu said initially about 11 students and 11 mentors will participate in the mentorship program. She said she expects this number to increase as the program moves from pilot status to a more established presence on campus.
The mentors include WMU professors and faculty members, school administrators at the primary and secondary level, representatives from the news media and an individual who operates a funeral home.
“The program gives undergraduate students opportunities to connect with working professionals who are LBGTA identified and who can help them navigate the workplace successfully as LBGTA-identified individuals upon graduating,” Hsu said. “This is a great opportunity to help support an LBGTA student transition from campus life to the workplace.”
The LBGTA Career Mentorship Program, which will go through October 2014, is the newest addition to the Ready to Work Series, an Office of LBGT Student Services initiative that seeks to address and mitigate the many legal and cultural challenges facing LBGT people in the workforce.
Harris, who worked for Vanguard Mutual Funds, Pfizer Corp. and Stryker Corp., said his biggest challenge was trying to figure out if people were going to embrace him for who he was. He did encounter people who did not feel comfortable being around him and experienced subtle hostility that prompted him to contact the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
Wanting to be part of the solution to the inequities he was seeing prompted him to organize an inclusion campaign at Stryker.
“There were times when I perceived an impacted ability to be promoted or given certain opportunities,” Harris said. “I needed to get that out of my head and look at the facts and ask myself if what I was doing was making sure that everything was in order for me to be in a position for that next promotion or opportunity.”
Navigating the political structure of the organizations he worked for presented a steep learning curve. He said abandoning his core values for the sake of a job was not something he was willing to do.
“I was not going to change to be part of an organization,” Harris said.
Terkos said he thinks some of the challenges faced by LBGT individuals in the workplace will never completely go away.
“There’s always going to be a bit of reluctance to embrace something you’re not comfortable with and this is a challenge in West Michigan,” he said. “But, something I see in Kalamazoo is that we have a lot of support here. Residents in the community have indicated that when it comes to housing and protections for the LBGT community, it’s a non-issue for them.”
Before Terkos felt like he was able to be himself, he said he was dealing with depression and was 50 pounds heavier than he is now. In addition, there were anger issues.
“When you hide who you are, what you’re trying to tamp down will come out in other ways,” he said.
Those companies who don’t recognize the value of diversity in the workplace will die out, Harris said.
“Sexual orientation is adding value, it’s just the diversity of thought in so many different ways and how do we create opportunities and work together to gain,” Harris said. “If an organization is going to have things against being gay, that organization is going to die out. We have a lot to bring to the table.”