By Christina Canales Gorczynski
Last month, for the first time in the institution’s history, a student majoring in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies (WGSS) graduated from the University of Houston. Since the new WGSS major launched in December 2015, Dr. Rachel Afi Quinn, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and Comparative Cultural Studies, reports that many interested students are packing WGSS intro classes and registrations for this major are surging.
The persistent advocacy of students and faculty prompted UH to add the WGSS major, a significant milestone for this ever-evolving program. Initially founded as a “women’s studies” program in 1991, UH’s WGSS program is now an academic program that offers an undergraduate major and two minors, as well as a graduate certificate.
The program is now viewed as a necessary part of the college curriculum by students like sophomore Lena Myers, who exclaims, “What would I do without it?!” when asked about the significance of the WGSS launch. “In school and in society, marginalized students are not taught about their histories, bodies, possibilities, positionality, and power,” explains Myers, UH WGSS major and president of the WGSS student group. “We must have these options in higher education. Critical identity studies programs like WGSS are crucial, and need to be uplifted if this university is going to be part of creating change for a different world.”
Elizabeth Gregory, director of the WGSS program, agrees. “Since gender and sexuality are defining aspects of everyone’s lives, and at issue constantly, our students need to be able to discuss and contextualize them in an honest and informed environment.”
Professor Rachel Afi Quinn encourages students to apply classroom lessons to the world beyond UH. Quinn aims to develop her students “to become informed and engaged citizens of a transnational world.” The WGSS program inspires students to engage with Houston-based organizations across diverse communities, promote feminist activism, and volunteer. And for Quinn, it’s the support of women throughout the city that makes the UH WGSS program unique.
Indeed, the WGSS program is supported by the UH Friends of Women’s Studies (FWS), a nonprofit organization comprised of women from across the city of Houston. Through fundraising and volunteerism, FWS supports WGSS students through research, teaching, and activities. “Attracting and retaining talented faculty and engaging with students is critical to our mission as Friends of Women’s Studies,” says FWS president Geordie Hrdlicka.
“Table Talk, our annual FWS fundraising event, connects the broader community of Houston women with the WGSS program and inspires continued investment in building a fair future,” explains Hrdlicka. Table Talk attracts over 500 supporters to a luncheon held at the Hilton Americas each spring. The event features “conversationalists”—dynamic women of various cultures, professions, and experiences—who lead discussions at each table.
Friends of Women’s Studies also supports the Carey Shuart Women’s Archive and Research Collection, a unique collection of documents and oral histories from notable Houston women. A “Living Archives” series is held monthly at the Rockwell Pavilion at UH’s MD Anderson Library. Living Archives events are open to the general public and offer panel discussions on topics such as #BlackWomensLivesMatter, Women and Pleasure, and Transgender 101.
These Living Archives discussions—in addition to the lectures, classes, and activities provided by the WGSS program—push students to think critically about gender, race, and class, according to sophomore Tonya Huynh, UH class of 2018. Huynh was considering transferring out of UH just as the WGSS major was announced during her second semester, so she happily stayed at UH and joined the WGSS student group. With her newly declared WGSS major, “[Social change] is what I get to study,” she says joyfully. “We dive deeper into an all-encompassing subject that gives us the ability and opportunity to strive towards social change.”
Drawing upon the energy of our international city and the diversity found at the University of Houston, the WGSS program has developed into an intersectional, multidisciplinary force on campus that critically assesses how identities shape society. Guillermo De Los Reyes, an associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Studies and an associate director of the WGSS Program, promises that “our graduates will be strong and empowered voices in the future.”
We wish Tonya, Lena, and all of the new Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies majors, minors, and faculty the best as they pioneer a program that’s changing the University of Houston and our city for the better, encouraging a fairer future for all.
Christina Canales Gorczynski is a community leader and CEO of First Person, a business-consulting firm for socially responsible organizations. Learn more at christinagorczynski.com.