Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
November 19, 1999

Filling in the blanks

by Kevin Brown
There's one thing Nancy Evans, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies, would like people to know about her: She walks the walk and talks the talk.

"I believe that we have to live our beliefs," Evans said.

"I had my first taste of activism at a small, rural, New York state college in Pottsdam at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Fifteen African American students came to campus as part of an educational opportunity program. Those students had a lot of problems adjusting. I took food to students holding a protest."

Evans and her husband, assistant professor of music James Trenberth, arrived at Iowa State three years ago from Penn State. She quickly became a catalyst for change and discussion of issues relating to non-dominant populations, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people on campus.

"I am disabled so I'm sensitive to issues you face when you aren't a member of the dominant group," Evans said. "I know what it is like to be stereotyped and not taken seriously. I just tend to affiliate with people who have had those types of experiences."

Evans' story of personal growth as a researcher of LGBT issues is one of a road less traveled.

"I grew up very nave," she said. "I grew up in a small town where everyone was just like me -- white, working class, where no one really desired to go to college. I grew up in a Republican family; I don't know how I became a liberal."

In her first job, she worked in student affairs for the now-closed Tarkio College in Missouri. One of her advisees was a gay student struggling with coming out, campus prejudice and family problems.

"Through that student, I got to know several other gay students," she said. "It was my first significant interaction with gay people. I learned a lot from that student. The experience also made me aware of the difficult issues LGBT students face."

She later moved on to Stephens College, an all-women's college in Columbia, Mo.

"Women's issues were more in my awareness at this time," Evans said. "Stephens still had a population of young women looking for the finishing experience, but there was also this group of largely middle class, more feminist women. There were a number of clashes between these philosophies and lifestyles."

Later, while teaching at Indiana University, she said she "became aware of the holes in student development research."

"All of the research focused on white, upper-class, male students," she said. "I wanted to try to fill in those blanks."

Commiserating with her friend, Vernon Wall (now ISU's assistant dean of students) and other colleagues about the lack of scholarship addressing LGBT issues on campus, they determined "we've got to write it!" The first fruits of that collaboration was the book Beyond Tolerance LGBT On Campus, published in 1991.

"That was the largest selling book by the American College Personnel Association," she said. "Since then, we've continued on."

Safe Zone at ISU

Evans worked closely with former ISU associate dean of students Houston Dougharty to establish ISU's "Safe Zone" project in 1997. The program encourages faculty, staff and students to post a "Safe Zone" sticker in a visible spot as a means to help LGBT students and employees feel accepted and not threatened.

"It was the perfect time to combine a new program with evaluation," Evans said. "The project was just getting under way."

She said the data she collected indicates that the Safe Zone project "has had a significant impact at ISU."

"We can show that the program has made LGBT students feel safer, more comfortable, and has provided them with a sense of community," she said. "I have conducted a lot of interviews -- stories of people both before and after the project. There is a remarkable change."

Evans said the Safe Zone project now is held as a national standard for such programs. The program won a national award (Best Ally program in the country) from the Association of College UnionsInternational.

"The Safe Zone research is powerful and provides actual data that the project has changed the climate for LGBT people at Iowa State," she said.

The freshman experience

Perception of the campus climate is a key interest area in Evans' LGBT research.

"I'm very interested in the freshman experience with regard to LGBT awareness," she said. "I want to know how they experience this campus for LGBT issues."

Two students who worked with Evans last spring kept journals of their LGBT-related experiences. They also took pictures of things they saw or experienced on campus. Her plan is to find two more students to continue the program in the spring.

"This will be ongoing for a period of time," she said. "From this, we will evaluate to create more supportive and safe environments for all students."

Evans said her research here is becoming a touchstone for other Iowa State employees interested in related studies. "I'd like to start a research group here focusing on LGBT issues," she said. "It would enable us to share work and exchange ideas."

Evans said many of her former students "are working on diversity issues of all kinds. They are working on their own campuses, creating more positive environments. I am proud of them for working to ensure equity for all students."

As a testament to her scholarship, ISU's student LGBT Alliance recognized Evans as "Ally of the Year" in 1998.

"Most importantly, I hope how I live my life demonstrates my values," Evans said.

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