Transgender Student Retention: Final Report

This summer, I was fortunate to be able to continue my work on transgender/gender nonconforming (TGNC) student retention that began this previous academic year. When I joined this project, things had come to a stall and not much progress was being made, so some of my first tasks were to collaborate with LGBTQA & Social Justice Center graduate assistant Emmett and associate director Erin about how to refocus the project, and gather essentially a whole new set of research articles and studies.

We started by dividing up the components of our topic into TGNC student-related literature and retention literature, and collecting articles that pertained to those two areas. Once we were satisfied with the amount of literature we had compiled, we broke down the key themes of the literature and were able to write an annotated bibliography in order to better organize each article based on its themes and relevance to our work. The annotated bibliography then was able to help us in the construction of the literature review, which we decided would be best broken down into three categories or themes: retention models/strategies, issues facing TGNC students, and supporting TGNC students. With some last-minute additions to the literature from some recent studies Emmett made me aware of, the literature review now seems much more connected, and these new additions serve as a critical link between these three themes.

At the start of the summer, the goal of the project was more general in terms of compiling information about the needs of TGNC students and areas where institutions could better support them in order to better help them stay in school, but after reading the most recent literature from Garvey, Squire, Stachler and Rankin regarding campus climate comfort and persistence for queer-spectrum students, as well as the reaction our work received at the Philadelphia Transgender Wellness Conference, our goal has become more focused on highlighting the narratives as to why TGNC students may leave an institution and utilizing the suggestions from the Garvey et al. article as a means to frame our questions within a survey or focus group to better gauge the specific needs that need to be met by institutions in order to retain these students.

Being able to attend the Philadelphia Trans Wellness conference this summer definitely helped me to rejuvenate my passion for this work, since being able to interact with hundreds of individuals that could potentially benefit from it was very humbling and eye opening. It was also a chance for me to challenge myself in socializing with others, particularly in regards to promoting the work I am doing. Historically, I am known to downplay my achievements because I am afraid of coming off as arrogant, but I challenged myself to think differently and tell myself that I am allowed to be proud of what I am doing and share that with others, and it paid off. We received the email contacts of 114 TGNC individuals who are interested in participating in our research, as well as professionals who have access to TGNC student populations that were interested in sharing our survey and research information with them. Even TGNC social media influencers with tens of thousands of followers were excited by our research and offered to use their platform to help spread the word about our work.

Taking on a research project that has so many potential influential implications has been incredibly exciting and humbling, but also at times has felt somewhat daunting and overwhelming. Being the perfectionist that I am, occasionally I will get too caught up in my own thoughts and self-critiques that I become stagnant in my progress, worrying that what I have been doing is not good enough and not knowing how to push past it. But after taking a step back and talking through things with Emmett and Erin, I felt like I had a sense of direction and purpose, and plenty of support to remind me that I am not alone in this, I am doing my best and that they are there to help me make this work be the best that it can be.

While we may not have been able to get to the actual survey-writing process just yet, a full and extensive literature review is the finished product I will be walking away with for this summer. My future goal with this research is to hopefully be able to continue this process for my honors thesis, and getting to continue this project in any capacity would be extraordinarily meaningful to me, because I know how impactful the potential results may be, and I want to be able to see what I can do with this and how far I can go. The process this summer has enabled me to step outside of my comfort zone, work closely with Erin and Emmett in a new capacity, reignite my passion for the work I am able to be doing, and motivate me to continue on with this work, however that may look.

Transgender Student Retention: Summer Blog 2

For our work on transgender/gender nonconforming (TGNC) retention this summer, I have been working on a literature review, and in the process of compiling this review, graduate assistant Emmett made me aware of two significant recent studies that help in connecting our literature together, as well as help us more specifically frame the goal of our research.

Some data we recently looked into from the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), which is the largest survey of TGNC individuals to date, pertains to the attrition of TGNC students. Of the respondents who attended college or vocational school and experienced forms of harassment, 16% left as a result of harassment (James et al., 2016, p. 136). 24% of students who were out or perceived as transgender in higher education reported being verbally, physically, or sexually harassed (James et al., 2016, p. 136). Additionally, 1% of respondents who attended higher education were forced out of school or expelled, and 5% left for other reasons pertaining to being transgender (James et al., 2016, p. 136). With some of these quantitative points related to reasons why TGNC students left their institution, we have more of a basis for framing our own research to help answer the question: how are we indirectly (and sometimes directly) pushing TGNC students out of their institutions?

A new study published in February of this year demonstrates a link between perceptions of campus climate and institutional action to academic success and persistence for LGBTQA students. Their results demonstrated that comfort with campus climate was the most significant predictor of academic success, followed by institutional action perceptions and campus climate perceptions (Garvey, Squire, Stachler & Rankin, 2018). In discussing their results, Garvey and Rankin noted that “across a wide swath of systemic oppressions, those who saw their campuses as less racist, transphobic, homophobic, ageist, classist, and ableist, felt more satisfied with their intellectual growth. This is potentially due to increased feelings of inclusion, lack of erasure, and increased positive visibility in the classroom” (Garvey, Squire, Stachler & Rankin, 2018, p. 11). The results of this study demonstrate that, if TGNC students feel included and positively visible and, in turn, perceive their campus climate as being more comfortable and warm, they have higher rates of persistence and academic success.These results provide us with a new bridge to link all of our literature together regarding retention strategies and experiences of TGNC students, as well as gives us suggestions and a framework to build our survey and/or focus group questions off of.

Between these new results relating to campus climate and academic success, and the USTS results pointing to the number of TGNC individuals who left their institutions for a variety of reasons, we are now better able to frame our own work as one of providing more qualitative context as to why students may leave, and what institutions may be able to implement in order to better retain TGNC students.

At the beginning of this month, I was able to attend the Philadelphia Transgender Wellness Conference (PTWC) through the UGR conference travel fund. The PTWC is the largest transgender health conference in the world, drawing thousands of people. While there, I was able to have a vendor table with posters and information about my work on display, as well as an email sign up sheet in order for those interested in participating in my work to give their email address in order to contact them about our survey.  My experience at the conference was incredibly valuable, and I was able to network with professionals interested in my work, as well as hear stories of TGNC individuals who left school or transferred for a variety of reasons relating to their gender identity.

Over the course of the 3 day conference, we gathered email addresses of 114 TGNC individuals who were interested in participating in our survey, as well as talked to others who are mental health providers working with TGNC students, those who work on college campuses and would have access to TGNC student populations on their respective campuses, and even social media influencers with tens of thousands of TGNC followers who were interested in sharing our survey on their platforms.

Throughout the research process this summer, I have learned more about myself and how to challenge myself in aspects of my life I used to shy away from. For example, being able to ask for guidance or allowing myself to feel proud of the work I have been doing is something I previously would have been too anxious to do. This project has been transformative for me because I was able to interact with other TGNC people who would benefit from the work I am doing and I am allowing myself to recognize how impactful this work could be, which is something I never would have imagined I would be doing.

I am hoping to continue this research project as a part of my honors thesis, and my current goal moving forward with this research is to complete the literature review I have been working on as fully as possible, and begin working on submitting for IRB approval so we can then move forward with creating a survey.

Transgender Student Retention: Summer Blog 1

Hi, my name is Matthew Scheller, and I am  a rising senior in the honors college majoring in applied psychology with a minor in queer studies. I am working alongside LGBTQA & Social Justice Center Graduate Assistant Emmett Griffith and Associate Director Erin Furey to look at transgender students and retention.

The current title of our research project is Transgender Student Retention, where our goals are to gain insight into the specific needs of transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) college/university students that could be met potentially through a retention model or strategy, and therefore may impact retention rates for TGNC students.

We hope to learn about what TGNC students would need from an institution that would better help them to remain in school, and we plan on using a survey and focus groups to learn about these needs.

So far, we are in the process of writing our literature review, having compiled a variety of sources pertaining to subjects such as retention strategies for LGBTQA and other marginalized groups of students, and experiences of TGNC college students, which can include topics such as mental health and perception of campus climate. We were able to come up with a few general themes to briefly summarize our sources, including the impact of support systems on transgender student success and engagement, influence of negative campus climate experiences on mental health, assumptions made about who TGNC people are and what they need, and largely, the lack of research about TGNC students. Currently, there is no existing literature that specifically focuses on TGNC students, so our literature review seeks to find the connections between existing literature about TGNC students and about retention and where our research may be able to fill in those gaps. Going forward, we plan to put together a survey and potentially focus groups where we would like to gather information from TGNC students regarding their needs and experiences at institutions and what they would need or like to see from institutions that may help them to stay in school.

Since there is no existing literature focused on TGNC students and retention, our work could be the first of its kind. With our work, an entire population of students that have been historically marginalized and overlooked by institutions when it comes to their specific needs may be finally recognized and may lead to a greater number of TGNC students staying in school.