Supporting Transgender & Transitioning Students in the College Application Process

Melissa Kotacka, MA NCC CT, Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment

*Views and opinions expressed herein are the author’s own and not the institution’s

This year marks my thirteenth year in the admissions profession, and thirteen years of working with and supporting LGBTQIA+ students through this process across three institutions. I’ve been on the undergraduate and high school sides, and now I work in graduate admissions for a professional school within a larger university, with some independent client work. Some years, such as when I worked at the high school level at a small, independent school with a high proportion of students who were out within our community, my work with LGBTQIA+ students — especially with transgender, transitioning, nonbinary, and gender fluid students — was more visible given the amount of time I was able to spend with those individual students and their families. Some years, it has been more subtle, such as holding space for students to share deeply personal stories in their essays during committee, or shepherding a student through application systems back before those systems understood that “sex” and “gender” were two different things, and that our societal binary was incredibly limiting and inaccurate.

I am not special for my experiences. I am not rare in admissions work. Unless you are brand new to counseling, admissions or working with students in any capacity, you must know that the sentence “We’ve never had/I’ve never worked with a trans* student before” will always be followed by the unspoken caveats of “that you know of” and/or “that felt safe being out with you/your community.”

We have to assume we have trans* and nonbinary students in our populations. Even and especially if those students aren’t out and may be exploring and/or questioning their identities, these students need and deserve to feel seen and safe with us as their counselors, admissions officers, and support staff. It is also important to remember that all of us are working with trans* and nonbinary colleagues in the admissions space. We have to do this work for our students, and we have to do it for each other, full stop.

Please know: trans* and nonbinary communities are part of the larger LGBTQIA+ community – and within that larger community, there are challenges of discrimination and transphobia (and biphobia and racism). Here in the SACAC region, we must truly mean it when we say “Y’all means ALL.”

To that end, I offer the following collection of resources, queries, and suggestions for expanding your and your educational communities’ capacity for supporting trans* and nonbinary students. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’m hopeful that you’ll find something useful here:

  • Start with getting your vocabulary updated.
  • Practice and normalize using pronouns:
    • At my current institution, our Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity emailed our full campus at the start of this Fall 2020 semester with instructions for how to add our pronouns to our Zoom screennames. It is also expected that we include our pronouns in our email signatures. In pre-pandemic times, we included pronouns as part of our introductions during live events (e.g. “Hi, my name is Melissa and I use she/her pronouns, and I am one of our Assistant Directors of Admission”). Pronoun buttons and stickers were also common practice.
    • Especially normalize screwing up, quickly fixing mistakes, and then immediately moving on without making misgendering someone else all about you. Apologize, correct yourself and/or gracefully accept correction, and do better next time.
    • NOTE: Pronouns are not “preferred” – they simply are. I don’t “prefer” to use she/her – I just do.
  • For trans* and nonbinary students, use their chosen names wherever possible, and follow their lead.
    • Coming out is a lifelong process, as individuals determine when and whether to share this part of their identities based on a combination of personal, safety, professional, and other factors. It is possible that your trans* and nonbinary students may only be out in one of their communities at first – maybe at school, but not at home; or maybe just one community at school (e.g. their athletic team or close friend group) but not to the whole school. Ask your students how they want you to navigate their naming and pronouns.
    • Avoid deadnaming where you can, and talk about those circumstances where you can’t.
      • Know your campus policies for updating transcripts and other records (e.g. most institutions require that a legal name change be on file with the state first). If you don’t already include a “preferred name” section on school documents and online learning systems, advocate to add one.
      • Proactively reach out to trans* and nonbinary students when you know there will be a conflict in naming conventions. Explain when and where they may still see their prior name so that they are not caught off guard.
      • In a virtual world, allow students to rename themselves on virtual platforms. Constantly seeing their deadname in their learning environment with no option to change it is hurtful.
      • Navigating applications can be tough in this regard, and this is where open, honest, and authentic conversations with students are key. These logistics will also depend on how the institutions themselves handle applications from trans* and nonbinary students. Ask admissions offices for support here, and present the options to your students for how they would like to proceed.
  • Get trained:
    • Campus-based colleagues: your LGBQTIA+ center likely has staff and faculty sessions available. Check their schedule for each semester, and talk to your manager/team lead about the possibility of attending as a group – or even scheduling a training session with your whole office.
    • CBO- and School-based colleagues: if you are located near a campus, check in with their LGBTQIA+ center or office. They may have the capacity to accommodate you to attend one of their training sessions, or to host a training for your staff. If your area has a city-sponsored LGBTQIA+ Center, they may also be able to support you.
    • Independent colleagues: Reach out to city-supported resources, and see what community resources there may be.
  • Get trained again.
    • Best practices evolve over time. We have a professional obligation to ensure we are as up to date as we can be.
    • Most of us will change institutions at one or more points during our career. That is a great time to both refresh your general knowledge on LGBTQIA+ best practices AND to learn how your new community supports their trans* and nonbinary students, staff, and faculty.
  • Make trans*, nonbinary, and LGBTQIA+ training part of your regular professional development.
  • Institutional-based colleagues, some considerations for you
    • Do you link to your campus LGBTQIA+ center from your admissions homepages as a resource?
    • Does your application offer the option to identify beyond the rigid binary of female/male, and if so, do you allow students to self-identify rather than simply selecting “Other”?
    • Update your prospect and inquiry forms to be more inclusive: include preferred name as a bare minimum, and consider including an option for students to self-identify their gender. Double check that you are using “preferred name” in your mailings rather than defaulting to “first name.”
    • How do you train your readers to hold student essays about coming out with care and respect?
    • Do your application instructions include guidance on how to navigate documentation for trans* and nonbinary students?
  • School- and CBO-based colleagues, some considerations for you:
    • If you are writing letters for your students and they have come out to you, ask them whether/how they would like you to address anything about their identity, and then do that. Follow their lead here.
    • Gender-neutral bathrooms should be clearly marked and easily accessible. “Just use the staff bathroom” is a band-aid, not a solution.
    • If your school has a gay-straight alliance, is it welcoming for trans* and nonbinary students?
    • What kinds of harassment policies do you have in place to protect your students? Are they equally enforced?
    • If your school offers sexual education, advocate for
    • Go beyond the basic pride flag. There are many communities within the broader LGBTQIA+ community, and as noted above, some struggle for visibility and acceptance.  Some campuses have the resources to provide pride flags for students, such as setting them in a designated area of an office for taking. Whether the flags are big or small, this can be a strong but passive way to signal “You are seen and held for who you are.”
  • School- and CBO-based and independent colleagues, help your students check campus culture at the institutions they are considering
    • Ask admissions representatives about supports specific to trans* and nonbinary students.
    • Does a campus have a LGTBQIA+ center? How well is it staffed? How robust is their training, support, resources for their campus and how public are they about it on their website and social media?
    • Does the institution’s application include space for gender identities beyond the binary?
    • When an institution emails your student, do they use the preferred or legal name?
    • Check the surrounding community where schools are located – while college may be a bubble, it isn’t hermetically sealed.
    • What supports are in place through an institution’s Title IX office?
    • How robust are student health insurance plans? Do they cover hormones and other medical support (e.g. surgery) for trans* students?
    • Check state laws and policies regarding LGBTQIA+ communities, such as bathroom bills.

There is a lot of work to be done in ensuring that our trans* and nonbinary students and colleagues are safe and affirmed in their learning and work environments. Are there other resources and suggestions you’ve found helpful in your work? I encourage you to share additional suggestions, and resources in the comments to this piece or send them to SACAC’s Inclusion, Access, and Success Committee at [email protected]

Be well and hold each other close, y’all.