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Students react to decision to admit transgender students at Mount Holyoke

BY   October 15, 2014 at 3:47 PM EDT

Jenny Ochteriski (right) and Briar Harrison (left) are student advocates for the transgender community on Mount Holyoke's campus. Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH.

Jenny Ochteriski (right) and Briar Harrison (left) are student advocates for the transgender community on Mount Holyoke’s campus. Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH.

This fall, Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts became the second all-women’s college in the U.S. to begin accepting applications from transgender students. The announcement was received positively on the South Hadley campus, but it’s also raising questions about Mount Holyoke’s identity as the oldest women’s college in the country.

When Mount Holyoke president Lynn Pasquerella made the announcement during this year’s convocation, tears welled in her eyes. She announced that the school was adopting a new policy welcoming applications from any qualified student who is female or who identifies as a woman.

It’s a little complicated, but what it all means is that Mount Holyoke will consider a student’s application even if they were were biologically-born male, but identify as a woman. The policy also includes biologically-born females who identify as males.

“In the past, the Common Application would have kicked out anyone who checked the male box on the application,” explained President Lynn Pasquerella. “Now we have a section on the Common Application that allows them to talk about their gender identity.”

Gender identity is something students at Mount Holyoke, a school with a vibrant gay and lesbian community, have long discussed in the open.

See how women’s college alumni and others are reacting to the admissions policy shift on the On Campus site.

“One thing that we’re talking about is that people of multiple genders have always gone to Mount Holyoke,” said Jennie Ochteriski, a senior at Mount Holyoke.

Ochteriski leads a group dedicated to the full inclusion of transgender women at Mount Holyoke. She and other students have been advocating for changes in the college’s admissions policy, and she says their hard work has finally paid off.

“Mount Holyoke can be this pioneering progressive change and hopefully spread that message to other women’s colleges across the country — that trans women do belong in women’s spaces like Mount Holyoke,” said Ochteriski.

Now that the college has formalized its policy on admitting transgender students, it’s grappling with certain realities — like bathrooms, dormitories, and educating students about transgender issues. That’s why Ochteriski is writing a weekly newspaper column, allowing students to ask questions.

“Trans 101, with Jennie,” Ochteriski explained. “So, starting at the beginning, the word ‘transgender’ is an adjective that describes a person whose gender does not align with the one they were assigned at birth.”

Getting students to understand that basic information is one solution to overcome discrimination against transgender people, something sophomore Briar Harrison copes with everyday.

Even at Mount Holyoke, where gender is discussed freely, Harrison says it’s difficult to be part of the community.

“If I go to class, and a professor uses the wrong pronouns for me, I have a choice: I can sit quietly and not say anything, but it’s going to trigger me. It’s going to distract me and cause me to feel anxious, depressed, and take me out of the frame of mind I need to be in to learn,” Harrison said. “If I choose not to fight it, it will never get better. But at the same time, fighting is tiring.”

Related: Women’s Colleges Struggle To Survive In Shifting Higher Ed Landscape

Walk across this idyllic campus, and you’ll find most of Briar’s peers empathize with that struggle. At the campus coffee shop, junior Maddie Gordon says she welcomes the new admissions policy.

“I have tons of gay, lesbian, transgender friends and, you know, you don’t even think about it when you’re in class,” Gordon said. “You’re just thinking, ‘That person next to me has a wonderful point.’ So your sexual orientation never plays any type of thinking into how you treat people during class or even after class.”

Few students were willing to express their opposition on the record, but some did tell us they are transferring. Others said the administration failed to seek student feedback, and to answer their questions about roommates.

On the other side of campus, Emma Bickford says she chose Mount Holyoke after she visited the school and fell in love with the community.

Surrounded by women, the sophomore from Sandwich, New Hampshire, says she feels safe here, and she wasn’t happy to learn about the new open admissions policy. She recalled the day the announcement was made, and the student audience cheered.

“I did not erupt,” Bickford said. “I was sitting with a couple of my friends and they share the same feelings that I do and we just kind of sat there.”

Emma describes herself as traditionally conservative. For her, gender is a straightforward issue.

“To me, if you are still legally a man, even if you identify as a woman, you are not a woman,” Bickford said. “So this is an all-women’s school and I just don’t think you belong here.”

President Lynn Pasquerella says the school has heard similar concerns from alumni disheartened about the decision, but, she insists, those women are in the minority.

This story comes from On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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