UMSL kicks off commencement weekend with a Lavender Graduation celebrating LGBTQ+ graduates

by | May 15, 2023

A crowd of about 40 people gathered in the ED Collabitat to celebrate 13 LGBTQ+ UMSL graduates and their accomplishments.
Group of LGBTQ+ UMSL graduates stand at the head of the room getting photographed by the audience.

University of Missouri–St. Louis graduates and friends pose, as friends, family and allies take photos after the 2023 Lavender Graduation ceremony. (Photos by Derik Holtman)

The University of Missouri–St. Louis held its sixth annual Lavender Graduation last Thursday, preceding a weekend of six commencement ceremonies. A crowd of about 40 people gathered in the ED Collabitat to celebrate 13 LGBTQ+ UMSL graduates and their accomplishments.

Dakota Miller, LGBTQ+ and diversity coordinator in the Office of Student Involvement, emceed the ceremony and began by welcoming the graduates, their families, friends and allies. Chancellor Kristin Sobolik then addressed the audience, noting the significance of recognizing the graduates’ achievements.

Chancellor Kristin Sobolik talks to a group of students seated at Lavender Graduation in the Ed Collabitat

Chancellor Kristin Sobolik talks to a group of students seated in the Ed Collabitat last week for Lavender Graduation.

“I feel a sense of accomplishment, your accomplishment,” she said. “You have all overcome a lot to get to where you are today, ready to go out and live your dreams. Live your life the way you want to live it and take on the world on your terms. So, in addition to feeling and seeing a sense of accomplishment, I also feel and see a sense of resolution. There are so many opportunities and obstacles that each of you have had to grapple with to get to this point, obtaining your degree and moving forward in life in the direction of your choice, and that degree will help open doors in whatever career path you choose.”

Jessica Long-Pease, the interim vice provost for student affairs, served as the keynote speaker and noted the impact of the visibility of LGBTQ+ students in higher education and on campus.

“By attending UMSL being your authentic selves, you have created and held space for others to develop and to explore the various facets of sexuality and gender in a safe space,” she said. “It cannot be overstated how important your role on campus has been while you’ve been here and will continue to be as we work together to maintain support of our LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff.”

Educator and author, Ronni Sanlo, who identifies as a Jewish lesbian, began the tradition of the Lavender Graduation after she’d been denied the opportunity to attend her children’s graduations because of her sexual orientation. In 1995 she held the first Lavender Graduation at the University of Michigan while directing what became known as the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs. Others have followed Sanlo’s lead ever since with more than 1,000 such ceremonies now held around the country. UMSL’s Office of Student Involvement has been holding formal, public Lavender Graduation ceremonies since 2018.

After Long-Pease’s impassioned address, Nat Brown, who graduated with an MEd with an emphasis in school counseling, gave the student speech. They spoke of the support they’ve received from their parents, grandparents and friends. They also highlighted their wife, Maria, who provided significant support during their time in school.

“Maria, I could not have done this without you for the last year,” Brown shared. “Especially since you have worked the extra hours, you’ve missed out on opportunities and fun things that you wanted to do just to support us and help us get through school. So thank you. Without you I literally would not have been able to finish this degree.”

Other students, after approaching the stage and receiving their rainbow colored cords that were placed around their necks, made similar remarks, pointing to the support they’ve received from family, friends, allies and the university. One student, who credits UMSL for his ability to complete his education, is Anderson Birk Spencer, who graduated with a BS in biology the Pierre Laclede Honors College.

Brown woman and her girlfriend pose for a photo against a lavender backdrop.

Alessandra Milagros Early poses with a friend at the 2023 Lavender Graduation.

Spencer, who was the secretary of the LGBTQ+ student group PRIZM, and plans to pursue a career in animal conservation, said he couldn’t have finished his degree with UMSL’s support.

“It was super hard for me when I came out as transgender to find people that could support me,” he said. “It took me a long time to figure out how to rely on myself and how to find others that could support me. It was really hard for me to graduate. I was fortunate that I was able to graduate in three years. I paid for college by working for Residential Life and Housing. So that’s what allowed me to live here. Residential Life and Housing is why I was able to continue going to college, because without that, I probably would have had to take out a bunch of loans. I’m graduating debt free, which is really amazing as well.”

Tanisha Stevens, vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, believed the ceremony was an opportunity for the university to stand behind its commitment to inclusivity.

“I think this annual celebration is so important,” she said. “When the university talks about the importance of being welcoming and inclusive, this is just another example of how we really intentionally honor our student body and get an opportunity to celebrate their achievements.”

Drew Ryherd, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public policy administration with an emphasis in nonprofit administration and a minor in studio art from the Pierre Laclede Honors College, appreciated that the university recognized his community in a way that felt thoughtful.

“I was so warmed by the presence of all of my community here in one place,” they said. “It was incredibly touching to be seen and validated, most importantly by my fellow queer students and allies in the audience. To see all the support we’ve received from family, from faculty, from staff, from our chancellor today – it was really touching. I’m glad that UMSL is a place that can be inclusive with students like us.”

Congratulations to the following graduates who registered to be a part of the 2023 Lavender Graduation:

Bachelor’s degrees
Michele Hillery, organizational leadership
Elio Hollenbeck, liberal studies (writing emphasis)
Daisy Pryer, studio art
Anglin Shelby Rae, studio art
Drew Ryherd, public policy administration (nonprofit management emphasis)
Anderson Birk Spencer, biology
Sydney Stark, criminology and criminal justice and Spanish

Master’s degrees
Adam William Brazzle, biochemistry and biotechnology
Nat Brown, education (school counseling emphasis)
Jenna Leigh Damore, history

Doctoral degrees
Andrea Giuffre, criminology and criminal justice
Alessandra Milagros Early, criminology and criminal justice
Breon T Rose, education (counseling emphasis)

Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd