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Book focuses on trans college student inclusion, experience
by Melissa Wasserman
2016-12-20

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College is already a difficult transition for most and Dr. Z Nicolazzo, Ph.D. ( preferred pronouns: ze and hir ) focuses on being transgender in college with hir first book Trans* in College: Transgender Students' Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion.

Nicolazzo is assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education and faculty associate in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University ( NIU ). Hailing from New Hampshire, ze has traveled around the country, earning hir Ph.D. in student affairs in higher education and graduate certificate in women's, gender, and sexuality studies from Miami University; M.S. degree in college student personnel from Western Illinois University; and a B.A. in philosophy from Roger Williams University.

Nicolazzo identifies as a non-binary trans fem individual. Before going back to start hir doctoral work full time, ze was working at the University of Arizona as a coordinator in the fraternity and sorority programs office. It was during that time ze came into hir own trans identity. Ze described it as a gender-binary office on a college campus and it was at a time when the state politics were quite dangerous for people on the margins.

"I didn't really have an understanding of what transgender even meant when I was in college, so clearly I couldn't identify in that way, and so I wanted to think about what it would be like to be trans in college," Nicolazzo said of hir experience, which is how ze got into hir area of interest. "That led me to the works I did with my participants to collect data and write this book. On top of that, I really wanted to do it from an affirmative perspective; to think about what are the ways that we're already succeeding because we know, anecdotally, that trans people are successful. What I was wondering is how can we problematize and think about what's wrong with our college environments, rather than saying what's wrong with trans people."

Nicolazzo's research focuses on gender, broadly, but specifically the work ze does is with transgender college students. Nicolazzo explained ze is focused on how transgender students can be understood through affirmative- and resilience-based approaches.

Previous research or scholarship that has been done, Nicolazzo said, has been deficit-based and has focused on ways that trans students are hurt, harmed, harassed and/or how they are not matching up to their cisgender or non-trans peers in college environments. Ze added there is also some scholarship that is not empirical and not research-based and there is a body of research that focuses on LGBT populations, but the "T" portion is small or non-existent.

"The work that I'm doing is trying to use appreciative inquiry models," said Nicolazzo. "I'm really looking at research with trans students, trying to think about how is it that we are making our own way and creating college environments that work for us when the environment was never really built with us in mind."

Trans* in College: Transgender Students' Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion was published in November 2016.

It includes Nicolazzo's personal gender journey, a review of literature about trans people in education, the research Nicolazzo did alongside nine transgender students at one particular Midwestern, urban institution and the participants' perspective, particularly if they were to imagine they had a captive audience of non-transgender students, faculty and staff, what they would say to them. This last piece, Nicolazzo added, was to give those transgender college students the final say because most of the time, trans students do not get the final word.

"The book itself is certainly for the educational community," said Nicolazzo. "I'm certainly writing toward faculty and staff of colleges, but the book is, I'm hoping, equally for trans students as well. So, my hope is trans students will be able to find this book, will be able to pick it up and will be able to see themselves reflected in the pages and might be able to help them feel less alone and a little more connected to community."

Ze did an 18-month study with these nine transgender college students. Ze described this research as ethnographic. Throughout, it is about how transgender college students navigated their environment successfully ( however they define that notion of success ).

"In some ways, I'm really excited to be the increase in visibility in trans lives and also thinking about the kind of plurality of our lives, but in other ways, I'm realizing that that visibility has an increased threat or harm in some ways," said Nicolazzo.

Nicolazzo remembered feeling alone and unable to come out at work when ze realized hir transgender identity. Taking a friend's advice, ze took to reading books by trans people, especially transwomen to get a sense of who ze was, a sense of what ze could be and who hir community was. Ze added, because of that experience and the research collected through hir doctoral program and dissertation process, ze wanted to be able to give back to students who also might be feeling similarly.

"For me, when I think about teaching, it's important to make sure that I'm talking about gender in expansive ways, even when the topic isn't solely gender," said Nicolazzo. "It's important for me to have trans authors and scholars represented through my syllabi and it's important to recognize that. It's important to talk about how gender mediates different topics we're discussing."

"I hope and I want for trans people to feel seen in ways that we largely haven't been seen through educational literature and really through literature, broadly speaking," said Nicolazzo. "I'm very excited for people who read the book to meet these participants. These participants are fantastic people and my hope is that folks who are not transgender will listen to the participants and will think more critically the way they need to. I think we need to unlearn the ways that we've been taught about gender. So, my hope is that people who aren't trans will continue to unlearn all of these binary notions of gender and that we will be able to work together to create more inclusive environments."

To learn more about Nicolazzo, visit: znicolazzo.weebly.com .


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