To travel UAA’s path toward a more engaging and affirming future, follow the rainbow streamers on the ground floor of the Student Union. A reception there this week celebrated the opening of the university’s Pride Center, which organizers say is unique.
“This is the first college pride center in the state,” said Sara Caldwell-Kan, UAA’s director of multicultural student services. “So, that’s a signal to our students in Alaska who are queer and trans and allies that UAA does have specific focus and intention to support them.”
The university said the center will provide programs and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and two-spirit members of the UAA community. It’s a response to a recommendation by the university’s LGBTQIA2S+ Advisory Committee last year.
On Tuesday, attendees crowded the Student Union for speeches and songs to mark what many called a historic moment for UAA. Singer Dela Rosa performed. Former acting mayor and current Anchorage Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson, the first woman and openly gay person to serve as Anchorage mayor, spoke about the center’s importance. Three students wielded a big pair of scissors to cut the ceremonial ribbon. Then, people streamed into the lounge-like room nestled between offices, decorated with colorful flags, balloons and a rainbow mural on its windows, to talk, laugh and hug.
Jessi Saiki, UAA’s engagement and belonging coordinator who will staff the center, said the opening is the result of years of advocacy by students, staff and community members. Saiki, who uses the pronouns they/them, said they envisioned something just like it in 2014, when their undergraduate studies began.
To see the room filled with students and supporters Tuesday afternoon felt electric, they said.
“I always felt like there would be a chance for this, and here we are today,” Saiki said.
Saiki, who contributed to the proposal that led to the center’s creation, said they hoped to create a space that would complement students’ emphasis on academic and career success by encouraging rest and fun.
“There needs to be much more of an emphasis on the holistic wellness of students,” Saiki said.
A sense of belonging is vital to that wellness, they said.
“We can look across the room right now and we see that people are craving connection with other people,” said Saiki, who hopes to continue their studies at UAA in social work. “This is a place where they can be their full authentic selves. And no matter what’s going on in their academic or personal lives, there’s a place here for them.”
Robert Gant, an economics student who said he’ll graduate this semester, said the center can make a difference for people who feel isolated.
“Especially when you’re in that critical college-age stage where you’re trying to define your own identity coming into adulthood, there needs to be spaces like that for the queer community to connect with each other,” he said.
“I’m very emotional right now knowing that this space finally exists,” Gant said.
Caldwell-Kan also said the center can be more than a place to socialize.
“It can be a lifeline for students,” she said. “It can be a space to really start to understand who are we in the world, how are we in this together — and then what changes, do we want to make at UAA or in Anchorage?”