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NIU named "Best of the Best" university for LGBTQ+ students

Northern Illinois University
Peter Medlin
Northern Illinois University

Northern Illinois University was recently honored as one of the “Best of the Best'' universities in the nation for LGBTQ+ students. Just 40 schools in the U.S. earned the five-star distinction from the website Campus Pride.

This is the first time NIU has been named to the “Best of the Best” list. Molly Holmes is the director of the university’s Gender & Sexuality Resource Center.

“This doesn't happen with one person or one office," she said. "This happens with a community-based approach where everybody plays a part in LGBTQ+ inclusion across campus."

Campus Pride’s index and awards are there, in part, so prospective students have an idea of how LGBTQ+-friendly their future school is and what specific programs are available.

Holmes thinks a lot about that. She says it’s one thing to get students on campus, but it’s another thing entirely to make sure they’re supported enough to stay.

She says they recently had a Cultural Sisterhood Summit specifically with retaining women of color in mind. NIU also developed an LGBTQ+ residential community -- a whole residence hall floor.

“It continues to be something our students remark that this is why they come to NIU. And further, this is why they stay at NIU,” said Holmes. “Students will talk about having this affirming landing space when they come to NIU, to move in and be around students who understand their experiences and they don't have to explain or define terms with -- it really does translate to that connectedness to the NIU community.”

Sometimes inclusion work also looks like data collection and reporting. Holmes says queer identities and experiences are often under-reported simply because they’re not asked about, partly because there’s no federal requirement to do so. She says carving out space on things like climate surveys help not only affirm that those identities count. It also ensures resources accurately reflect the campus.

She says it’s also essential to make sure classes themselves are welcoming. Her department has recently launched a seminar so professors from across disciplines -- from biology to the library -- hear from queer and trans students.

Trevon Smith is the president of Prism -- it’s the university’s main student LGBTQ+ organization. He says continuing that work is crucial because there’s always room for growth and improvement.

“I don't want to make it seem like it's all rainbows and sunshine, because it's not,” he said. “We still have our issues, in fact, the TransAction Task Force last semester put out a few demands because professors and faculty weren't treating trans students as well as they could.”

Prism has been around for over 50 years. They hold fun activities like Dungeons & Dragons game nights and they’re throwing a queer prom. Smith says they also help facilitate serious conversations on campus about trans identity & gender expression.

But Smith says even Prism has room to grow. He says they’re striving to be more welcoming for queer and trans students of color.

Prism, along with the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center, also leads a lot of inclusion initiatives at NIU like gender-neutral bathrooms.

Peregrin, a senior at NIU, is Prism’s treasurer. They say even though work has started, there are still buildings without those inclusive spaces. Peregrin says, on the one hand, they weren’t surprised about the school’s Campus Pride honor. On the other hand, it’s hard to call anything perfect.

“I feel like they didn't ask the actual students that live here and go to school here our opinions on it,” they said. “So, it's great that we got five out of five [stars] and yes, we are a very safe place for LGBT+ students. But also some people I know still have micro aggressions with stuff like either being misgendered or being told ‘you can't go into that bathroom.’ There's definitely work that still can be done.”

And, even in 2022, not all schools are safe places for LGBTQ+ students. There has been a surge of state legislation and hate crimes targeting queer communities over the past few years.

So, for students like Peregrin who are looking at graduate schools, knowing which schools and states they’ll be safe at is a major concern.

Molly Holmes at NIU says they really can only control their campus and try to highlight the progress that’s happening in DeKalb.

“We can't escape that there are policies and practices across the country in a very calculated and robust way that are very anti-LGBTQ+," she said. "But what NIU has done is cultivating space and support where diversity is our brand; inclusion is our brand."

NIU was one of only three colleges and universities in Illinois to earn the five-star distinction from Campus Pride. Southern Illinois University - Carbondale and University of Illinois - Chicago also earned top marks.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.