The UConn Rainbow Center hosts annual ‘Welcome Back Bash’ 

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The University of Connecticut Rainbow Center hosted its annual “Welcome Back Bash” on Friday, Sept. 15 to showcase the university’s space for LGBTQIA+ community members and the services and programs it offers. 

The event — organized by the student programs team — began by introducing the undergraduate, graduate and full-time employees of the Rainbow Center. Also announced was the arrival of a new assistant director, Ian Schick, who will begin Sept. 22. 

First highlighted was the Fostering Academics, Maturity, Independence, Leadership, Empowerment & Excellence mentoring program, also known as FAMILEE. According to the program’s website, FAMILEE is designed to “assist students in their first and second year at UConn-Storrs (including those coming from regional campuses and transfer students) with their transition” by connecting them with continuing undergraduate mentors. Mentors are assigned according to the needs and interests of mentees, event organizers explained.  

While other cultural centers offer mentor programs that require students to register in classes, event organizers explained that FAMILEE does not include this requirement in order to preserve student confidentiality. New students at the Storrs campus can still sign up to participate as a mentee by visiting www.rainbowcenter.uconn.edu/familee and filling out the online interest form.  

Next, student staff announced the second annual Rainbow Center Symposium, which is an opportunity for “students, staff, faculty and community members” to present their research findings and scholarship pertaining to the LGBTQIA+ community. This year’s symposium will take place on Oct. 13 and will feature author, filmmaker and social justice advocate Curtis Chin as the keynote speaker. The window for community members to submit research presentation proposals is still open on the Rainbow Center’s website. 

The Rainbow Center also hosts numerous other regular programs. The Out to Lunch lecture series, held on Thursdays at 12:30 p.m. in the center’s program room, invites scholars and community activists to discuss topics related to gender identity, gender expression and sexuality. The Lavender Resiliency Collective is a collaboration with UConn Student Health and Wellness that “offers educational support for LGBTQIA+ UConn students to interrupt internalized bias based on our unique and intersecting identities,” according to the SHaW website. The LRC meets virtually on Tuesdays from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. to accommodate students on all campuses. 

The physical location at Storrs can be a challenge. We want to be a resource and point of connection for students across all regional campuses.

Kelsey O’Neil, Rainbow Center director.

Program Manager for Mental Health and Health Equity Initiatives, Nishelli Ahmed, hosts office hours from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Rainbow Center’s main room to discuss well-being and “support connection between historically marginalized students.” Other health initiatives offered by the center in partnership with Perception Programs, Inc. include rapid HIV and Hepatitis C testing, which are available four times a month in the center’s conference room. Testing is free to all, and testing dates are available on the Rainbow Center website. In addition to free testing, the Rainbow Center also offers free safe-sex supplies. 

The Gender Affirming Closet is available to patrons to access gently-used clothing items for free. Appointments to donate clothing can be made by emailing the center at rainbowcenter@uconn.edu.  

Finally, student staff highlighted the cultural centers and programs at UConn, which include the African American Culture Center (AACC), the Asian American Cultural Center (AsACC), the Puerto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center (PRLACC) and the Women’s Center, as well as the Middle Eastern Cultural Programs (MECP) and Native American Cultural Programs (NACP).  

Before breaking into games, presenters illustrated the Rainbow Center’s affiliated LGBTQIA+ student organizations and affinity groups such as Out in STEM (oSTEM), Between Women, the DeColores Collective, Black Queer Student Association, Queer Asians and Allies and Queer Collective; as well as Rainbow Graduate Students and Young Professionals, the Queer UConn Employees Affinity Group and an affinity group for queer, Black and Indigenous faculty and staff. The Welcome Back Bash closed out with a Kahoot! game on LGBTQIA+ history and Rainbow Center trivia and a round of “Who am I,” during which students commingled by guessing which queer and transgender icon they were randomly assigned. 

Rainbow Center director Kelsey O’Neil said the purpose of the Welcome Back Bash was to bring new students into community with continuing students, faculty and staff and communicate major goals and services — but those services aren’t necessarily limited to the Rainbow Center’s location in Storrs.  

I’m overwhelmed by how passionate everyone is and how connected students are at the Rainbow Center. I’m consistently impressed by how much students know about resources on campus.

Lene Reynolds, Rainbow Center Higher Education and Student Affairs graduate assistant.

“The physical location at Storrs can be a challenge,” said O’Neil. “We want to be a resource and point of connection for students across all regional campuses.” In spite of the geographic obstacle, O’Neil said they want to know what LGBTQIA+ students attending any of UConn’s regional campuses at Avery Point, Waterbury, Stamford or Hartford need. The Rainbow Center has made efforts to bridge this gap, according to O’Neil, including an initiative to construct multi-stall, all-gender bathrooms at the Avery Point campus that is currently receiving its “finishing touches.” Moreover, the center is looking to collaborate further with the UConn Hartford Gender Sexuality Alliance. 

“I’m very overwhelmed by how passionate everyone is and how connected students are at the Rainbow Center,” said Lene Reynolds, the center’s Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) graduate assistant, who started in the position this year. “I’m consistently impressed by how much students know about resources on campus,” they added. According to O’Neil, the Rainbow Center’s 19 student staff members — who are responsible for maintaining the center’s space, organizing a large portion of programs and are often “the first face a lot of students will see” at the center — are acquiring identity and professional development that they can use after their college careers. 

But O’Neil and Reynolds are also cognizant of the importance of the Rainbow Center during what O’Neil called “a challenging time for LGBTQIA+ students, faculty and staff,” which includes rhetoric and legislation around the country that threaten access to healthcare and education and seek to undermine Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. 

“Here at UConn, we’re very lucky,” said O’Neil. They feel that UConn faces the task of supporting students coming from “anti-DEI” states like Texas and Florida, whose centers for marginalized communities are “crumbling and going to be non-existent.” 

 “It’s scary, holding space for everyone who is being shut out across the nation,” O’Neil said.  

“We’re hyper-aware of how undergrads tend to be the most impacted by policies in the institution,” said Reynolds. “Cultural centers offer opportunities to build community and support retention of students who are minoritized.”  

Book-ended by the sound of laughter and emo and Ballroom anthems, the Welcome Back Bash provided moments of queer joy and togetherness in a national environment that provokes anxiety and uncertainty for many in the LGBTQIA+ community. 

The Rainbow Center is located in room 403 of the Student Union. Students and community members can keep track of news and events by visiting www.rainbowcenter.uconn.edu.  

Names of student staff were omitted to preserve their confidentiality. 

Photo courtesy of UConn Rainbow Center Instagram.

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