Harp talks being ‘out’ in STEM, expanding LGBTQA+ resources

· 8 min read

Harp talks being ‘out’ in STEM, expanding LGBTQA+ resources

Nick Harp
Craig Chandler | University Communication
Nick Harp

Editor’s Note — This Q&A is part of a weekly conversation series that is celebrating Pride Month on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Medium page.

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his week, meet Nick Harp, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology from Knoxville, Tennessee. Harp works to advance representation and support for the LGBTQA+ community at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and beyond.

What prompted you to found Nebraska’s chapter of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals? Is there anything you’re particularly proud of from your time as president?

Thanks for the great question. There were several factors motivating my decision. First, I came from an institution where the state legislature voted to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, including the LGBTQA+ Center, which regularly lands it on a list of the most unwelcoming campuses for LGBTQA+ folks. Having had that experience, I wanted to become more active in LGBTQA+ advocacy but was not sure how to do so. Shortly after starting graduate school, I learned of the so-called “leaky pipeline” of LGBTQA+ folks with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) interests.

In short, sexual minority folks don’t stay in STEM at the same rate as their heterosexual counterparts. There are numerous reasons for this, but I think a powerful way to combat this kind of thing is having visible LGBTQA+ members in the STEM community. Achieving better LGBTQA+ representation in STEM and contributing to a more welcoming campus community thus became influential motivating factors for founding UNL’s chapter. Additionally, founding the chapter offered me an opportunity to merge my academic career with advocacy work.

Further, I felt like the needs of LGBTQA+ graduate students weren’t necessarily being met by other groups on campus. I do want to be clear that there are lots of LGBTQA+ advocacy and support groups on campus that are doing awesome work, but I think that graduate and professional students sometimes have a different set of needs than other campus community members. Although the group is open to anyone on campus, we do focus our programming on topics that better cater to these needs. For instance, professional development opportunities — diversity statement workshops, Q&A’s with “out” faculty about the academic job market — are at the core of our programming.

I think I am most proud of the growing collaborative nature of the organization, both in terms of campus relationships but also more broadly. We’ve made connections with other student groups on campus that are involved in diversity, equity and inclusion work, which I think helps build a supportive community for the broad range of identities on our campus. We’ve also made community connections. We’ve attended LGTBQA+ events — for example, Pride in the Park — and are currently working to develop partnerships with community businesses to help connect organization members with jobs and other opportunities.

I also should mention that we, and the national organization, have recently undergone some rebranding. Our UNL chapter is now known as Out to Innovate at University of Nebraska–Lincoln (OTI–UNL). Rolls off the tongue just a little easier! And more importantly, I think the rebranding is more inclusive, considering the previous name only explicitly stated “gay” and “lesbian” despite our intentions to support the full LGBTQA+ community and allies. I’d also encourage interested folks to reach out to us via our Facebook page to learn more about connecting with the organization.

You’re also working on a program to provide anonymous support to LGBTQA+ international students. Why is this program important?

This is an undertaking that we just began last semester, but I hope to see it come to fruition over the next academic year. I also certainly can’t take credit for the idea, as it was another member who mentioned this crucial gap in support for LGBTQA+ students.

The goal of the program, ultimately, will be to provide an anonymous online chat forum that international students can use to reach out for support. Studying abroad comes with a lot of cultural navigation, and that includes expressions of gender and sexuality. One obstacle that many LGBTQA+ folks navigate at some point in their life is “coming out” and openly expressing their identity, and to be honest, this is sometimes navigated repeatedly — that is, among different groups of people, like friends, family, coworkers, etcetera. Among the many considerations that folks have to consider is the possibility of negative ramifications after coming out. For instance, although there was a recent U.S. Supreme Court case that set a precedent of protecting LGBTQA+ workers from being fired for their gender or sexual identity, there were previously no federal protections. In other words, you might lose your job for coming out. Some nations even have laws that criminalize LGBTQA+ folks, and if someone is coming from that background, then this process can really be distressful. Protecting anonymity is crucial because it helps overcome a barrier that some might be facing in terms of seeking social support.

LGBTQA+ folks who are lacking social support are at risk for a lot of negative outcomes — physical, mental, financial — so it is important to provide options for support to folks in need to help reduce risks of these kinds of outcomes. I think the anonymous support option is kind of a blind spot, and I hope that we can make this valuable option a reality soon.

How and why did you get involved with the free legal name change clinic?

I was fortunate to be involved with this effort as a representative of the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Gender and Sexual Identity (CCSGSI). The effort was highly collaborative and included folks from OutNebraska, the Legal Aid of Nebraska, the LGBTQA+ Center and more. Unfortunately, I feel that this effort would have had an even larger impact had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred. The event was shifted to an online format, which restricted attendance to those from Douglas County, after the implementation of lockdowns across the country, but the online event did provide valuable services to folks in the LGBTQA+ community.

One of the reasons that these kinds of events and efforts are so impactful is that it provides support for folks navigating things that many of us are not taught about. In other words, seeking out legal aid or navigating the name change process yourself can feel like a lot to handle, and it is more difficult to find someone to ask for help navigating this, because cis-gender folks rarely seek this. Offering resources like this from time to time is a great way to help support gender-diverse communities. It’s also a really important step for achieving identity recognition. There are lots of systems that require a legal (rather than chosen) name, and providing people with the tools to make that change legally helps their identity be recognized. While I’m on this topic, I feel like I should mention how important it is to apologize and correct yourself if you mistake someone’s identity or use an incorrect name — it just takes a second and is really important to acknowledge.

You mentioned the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Gender and Sexual Identity (CCSGSI). How else are you working on behalf of the commission?

The CCSGSI is a relatively new resource for the community, although there was previously a Committee on GLBT Concerns. One of my biggest concerns from chats with other student members of CCSGSI, which I hope to help address this year, is that not enough folks are aware of this resource, especially students. We have a student subcommittee that plans to start hosting office hours or listening sessions this year, where folks can drop in and chat with us.

I’d also encourage anyone who is interested in becoming more involved in LGBTQA+ activism to consider applying when there are available spots. It is a great opportunity to engage in activism, but there are also lots of chances to learn about how the university and campus function as a whole.

What or who inspires or motivates you?

I feel incredibly lucky to have so many sources of inspiration. I would have to say that my colleagues in CCSGSI and NOGLSTP-UNL/OTI-UNL are very inspiring. Seeing colleagues who are also passionate about this topic and willing to volunteer their time to advocate for the community is pretty impactful and helps keep me motivated. We also get to celebrate victories together; if you’re trying to do advocacy in a void, then you’ll burn out quickly. Establishing and maintaining supportive networks is crucial for motivation.

I’m also inspired by my parents. They raised me to care for people in need, to stand up for causes that I’m passionate about, and to give it my all. I really can’t thank them enough for their impact on my life’s trajectory.

What is your advice to other Huskers looking to make an impact?

If you have an idea, then get out there, get involved, and give it your all. I really didn’t expect that NOGLSTP-UNL/OTI-UNL would take off as much as it has over the past few years, which has been really rewarding to see and has helped motivate me to continue the work. I think that, if there’s an area that you think is in need of impactful work, then you’re probably right, and there are probably others who share your feelings. Sometimes it just takes one person to push for something, whether that’s forming a student group or volunteering to serve in a campus or community role, to really make an impact.

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