Less than two decades ago, Erin Cross was a graduate student in a doctoral program at Penn State University. Throughout her studies, she found it wasn’t the actual program she was most drawn to—it was the student life activities within the LGBT community on campus that she found most fulfilling.
“I was incredibly out for many reasons and saw the need for LGBTQ graduate students and undergraduate students to really have role models, to have programming, and to have their needs met on campus,” Cross says. “It really drew me in because I saw how helpful it was for me to have my community and be there to support folks in their development and where they want to go in their lives.”
“[The mentor] said, ‘Why don’t you go and apply for that and figure out what you want to do?’ And I’ve been here ever since,” Cross says.
Today, Cross serves as the senior associate director of the Center, one of the oldest and most active institutions of its kind in the country. With only three full-time staff members, the Center works to support Penn’s LGBT students, staff, alumni, and faculty, all while increasing the general Penn community’s understanding and acceptance of its sexual and gender minority members.
“I wasn’t incredibly out at my undergrad institution and really felt like students should be if they choose and be supported in that,” Cross says. “And that’s just turned a 180 in the work that I do, in that many of the students now are already out, even though we do still have students who are questioning their sexual orientation and their gender identities.”
In addition to her duties at the Center, Cross serves as a senior fellow at Penn Nursing’s Center for Global Women’s Health, an affiliated faculty member in Penn’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program, an undergraduate pre-major adviser in the College, and sits on the Alcohol and Other Drug Task Force, the Division of Public Safety’s advisory board, and the Sexual Assault Working Group in the Vice Provost’s office. She has also taught courses within the Graduate School of Education and the School of Social Policy & Practice, and was honored as a Model of Excellence by Penn twice.
The Current recently spoke with Cross about her multi-faceted role at the Center, the shifts in the LGBT community she’s noticed over the years, and why the people of Penn make her job so rewarding.
Q: Since you came to Penn, have you noticed any major shifts in terms of the needs that the Center fills on campus?
A: The biggest shift was we used to do a lot with coming out. And we still do some with that, but by far not as much. We have a peer-to-peer mentor program, where a lot of folks who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity have their needs met. That’s been a big change. When I first started working here, there was no way a parent would bring their student to the Center. Now, we have that regularly. We have parents bringing their children here, showing them the Center, telling them this is a place they can become involved. And sometimes Bob [Schoenberg] and I look at each other and think, ‘Oh my gosh’—we still can’t believe this is happening. The other big shift is around transgender issues. At first, when I started working at Penn, there was maybe one person who openly, somewhat, identified as transgender among the student population. The community has grown. There are services that we have for transgender students, even in terms of having gender identity in the nondiscrimination policy in 2003, to gender-neutral housing, a preferred names system, and health coverage—that was huge. The community is growing and becoming more visible, so that’s been a key change as well.
Q: What is within the scope of your duties?
A: We all do a bit of everything. I oversee the day-to-day operations of the Center, so I oversee all the staff except for Bob, and make sure needs are being met in terms of the building and trainings. I run about 90 percent of all the trainings we do, whether for faculty, staff, or students. I run the peer-to-peer mentor program. I also serve on many committees representing the Center around the University. I do consulting with faculty who want to be more open and accepting of LGBTQ students or include related [content] in their syllabi. For mainly transgender-identified students but others as well, if they are having issues with faculty or staff and don’t feel comfortable addressing it themselves, I tend to be the one who takes that on and works with that.
Q: You had mentioned that many prospective students visit the Center. What sorts of things do you tell them the Center can offer?
A: I think it’s important for the Center to be what they want it to be. It could be that they’re coming in and they’re out, but they still want a peer mentor to guide them through the process, so we talk about the mentor program. We talk about our student groups—and we have about 25 student groups, so there’s always a place for the student, and if they don’t feel they have a place in one of those groups, they can create their own. We also have a lot of students who come to the Center to just hang out and get involved in other programs, or even use our free printing. They can also become a mentor themselves, or they can become a speaker for us. There are so many different ways they can get involved in terms of bringing LGBTQ issues through us to the rest of campus as well. There’s always something new, and it really depends on each student. A lot of times the parents have more questions than the students do.
Q: Have there been any moments at Penn that have been particularly career-affirming for you?
A: I think it’s important to note that we work with multiple communities because there are LGBT folks in every community and our issues are interconnected. That’s really something that’s key and important to me. So I helped found the Day of Service for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium along with former colleague Angela Scott and a great committee. It was at that point that I knew I was in the right place [because Penn was] supporting this social justice, community-based effort. I knew Penn was inclusive at that point because they didn’t blink twice when we proposed [the Day of Service.] The other thing that really stands out to me is the progress around gender non-conforming, transgender, and gender-variant folks on campus. Starting in 2003, with gender identity being added to the nondiscrimination policy, then moving into gender-neutral housing, the health benefits, the single-use restroom map, preferred names projects—those steps, making sure that everybody on our campus really is treated equally and has equal medical care, has a place to live where they feel comfortable, can be the best people they can be on campus. That kind of road—although it’s been long, it’s been over 10 years—we’re still ahead of the game in terms of other campuses in our country, and it makes me really proud to be part of Penn to know these policies are in place and that Penn is willing to go where it needs to go to support everybody, in this case, trans folks.
Q: What’s your favorite part about coming into work?
A: It’s the people. I have met so many amazing folks, whether they’re students I’m still in touch with who graduated 15 years ago, or the incoming first-year who is so prepared and already knows he wants to study abroad but isn’t sure he should as an out bisexual person, or the person who really wants to make sure that single-use restroom maps are up-to-date on campus. Some alums I’ve been in contact with have done amazing things in terms of social justice work, which just thrills me to my toes every time I think about it. I have colleagues who have done some brilliant things in their life. So simply, it’s the people I really look forward to every day.