Building Confidence Through Community
“My name is Anisa Bhatti, and I am a Graduate Student at the University of Pennsylvania.”
If I had a dollar for every time I said that introduction during the NASPA Conference, I could retire as soon as I get my diploma.
I never felt confident introducing myself in a professional environment. As a student who transitioned to higher education from life sciences, I never had much experience in networking or preparing elevator pitches since my undergraduate years consisted of attending labs, memorizing pathways, and drawing perfect hexagons for chemical structures. But this last year as a GSE student, I have taken professional development classes and learned about resume building, elevator pitches, and how to write cover letters. This week at NASPA, I was able to take my classroom knowledge and use it in a real-life setting.
When the Vice Provost of University Life, Dr. Mamta Accapadi visited my professional development class, she talked about the NASPA Conference and how it is a great opportunity to learn more about student affairs and professional development. As a full-time graduate student, I was very interested in attending the conference, but I was unsure if I could because I could not afford the trip costs. When I found out that Penn GSE and Penn University Life were generous enough to offer fully funded scholarships for 10 GSE students attending the NASPA conference, it made my decision to go all more exciting (and less stressful), and for that, I am fortunate and grateful.
It was great to see the Penn community being highly represented, with over 50 people in attendance. As I discussed with my cohort, there were a variety of lectures to choose from, which was overwhelming at first, but that was what I loved most about NASPA. It gave us diverse lectures that talked about different, critical topics in student affairs such as the importance of having centralized strategies in case of a crisis, success coaching for contemporary students, and the importance of having data collection that can help best serve first-generation students. Yet, my personal favorite was Dr. Dale Whittaker’s lesson on leadership, developing equity in higher education, and the importance of investing in solutions that address the barriers students face.
What made this experience incredibly fulfilling was having the chance to attend social events that were smaller, allowing me to take the time to get to know people professionally and personally. I had the pleasure of attending a Desi Meet-Up, and to see so many higher education professionals that resemble me and represent my culture made my experience at NAPSA empowering and inspiring. One of my biggest takeaways from the conference was the importance of developing relationships with others. This conference gave me the privilege to meet and learn from mid- and high-level administrators from institutions around the world. The leaders I have met from Penn (and outside of Penn) have been nothing but kind and welcoming throughout this experience. Their leadership and support created an energetic community in which everyone had something to gain personally and professionally. Their wisdom about the professional world gave me a better sense of navigating the job application and interview process with confidence. While I gained a lot of knowledge inside the lecture halls, the largest impact was through these deep connections I formed within the GSE and Penn professional community.
With this new confidence, I proudly reintroduce myself, not as an intimated student, but as a young professional ready to make an impact in higher education.
Change of Plan
During the pandemic, Oliver Kaplan transferred to Penn looking for a fresh start. A philosophy class altered his academic focus; he now hopes to shape educational policy for LGBTQ+ students.
Oliver Kaplan knew he had to make a change when, two months after his freshman year on a rural college campus, he was outed. Kaplan, who describes himself as “very closeted” until that point, had recently attended a discussion on LGBT rights, and his roommate started telling, first friends, then Kaplan’s parents, that Kaplan was gay.
“At that point, I thought, Well, do I try to correct people? Because I don’t know if I’m ready to be out, but if I correct people, then people are just going to assume I’m straight, and I’ll have to be closeted for the rest of my time here,” he says.
First, he met with the office of residential life, trying to get his roommate transferred to a different room. But since outing wasn’t a violation of any written rule, they “kind of threw their hands up and said, ‘Well, it’s not in our handbook.’”
Outing is a unique situation, Kaplan says. “If you’re not gay, you don’t understand how important that information is.” People try to equate outing to racial identity, and it’s not the same, says Kaplan, whose mother is Chinese and father is Jewish. “If someone were to say, ‘What if I tell other people that you’re Asian? What does that matter?’ Well, first of all, race and sexuality are not the same; you can tell my race from my face, but you can’t discern my sexuality,” he says.
Coming out, first to friends, then family, was a seven-month process that took place during the pandemic. At that point, Kaplan had become determined to transfer schools and had an interest in Penn. Kaplan contacted Erin Cross, director of the LGBT Center, who connected him with a Penn student who later became a mentor.
Penn is consistently ranked as one of the top schools for LGBTQ+ support, says Cross. The LGBT Center is the second oldest of its kind in the country, she says, “so we’ve had a history to build up community, sub-communities, academic ties, and links across the University.” As a response to homophobic campus incidents, Penn included sexual orientation in the University’s non-discrimination clause during the early 1980s. “We were at the forefront,” Cross says. “Penn and the city of Philadelphia have worked hard to make sure LGBTQ+ folks feel as safe as they possibly can, but there’s always more to do.”
On stage at Carnegie Hall
The Dec. 10 evening event featured more than 100 students in Dischord and Penn Yo a capella, Onda Latina and Penn Dhamaka dance, Bloomers and Mask and Wig comedy troupes, and the spoken-word Excelano Project. They performed for more than two hours before an audience of about 400 Penn alumni, students, and staff, along with family and friends.
“The vibe was extremely positive and spirits were high. The atmosphere had a tangible electricity to it created by the enthusiasm of the audience and the performers,” says Laurie McCall, director of Penn’s Platt Student Performing Arts House. “Everyone seemed to enjoy the show and being together at a Penn event.”
Co-sponsor Penn Live Arts made possible a virtual livestream that was recorded and is now available for viewing.