An often 'isolating' experience: Students launch trans mentorship program

A new student-run trans mentorship program has launched at UBC.

Fourth-year students Alex Gonzalez and Kip Chow, along with a few other students from the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses, have launched the faculty-sponsored Trans Mentorship Program. With about 30 students signing up as either mentors or mentees, Gonzalez said he created this initiative as an opportunity for trans students to meet each other in a comfortable setting.

“Being trans can be very isolating, especially if you're either not out, or if you pass really well,” said Gonzalez.

His claims are supported by studies showing that transgender youth have a higher mental health risk than the general youth population. Thus, it is crucial that they receive proper care and an effective support system, according to a mental health expert.

Knowing also the weight of school work and other priorities on trans students, Chow said they were motivated to help develop Gonzalez’s idea.

“There are people who are just starting out on their gender journey, or even their gender transition more generally… it can be [a] really daunting and isolating [experience] and can be difficult to deal with on your own,” they said.

Chow and Gonzalez highlighted the value the program will bring to both the mentor and mentee. While they first want to cultivate a friendship between the participants, Chow and Gonzalez also think that the program could have a profound impact on the trans community at UBC.

“The [mentees] get social support, they would have someone who understands what it is like to be trans at UBC, and everything that can come along with that. For example, how a trans student can access gender-affirming medical care in Vancouver,” said Chow.

Meanwhile, mentors, according to Chow, indicated that they wanted to give back to the trans community and improve the support system from what it was when they were once new to UBC.

Chow said the value of the program to both the mentor and mentee compelled many trans students to sign up.

“A lot of them are first years coming to UBC without a sense of community, especially when everything is virtual now,” they said. “Mentors would like to provide that support to them.”

Both students highlighted the flexibility of mentor-mentee commitment to the program: it would be contingent on both parties’ schedules and need for extra support.

Those who are not ready to come out as transgender but still are interested in signing up are encouraged to do so.

“Our anonymity policy states to only go as far as the person is comfortable,” said Gonzalez. “With everything going virtual, it can be dangerous for some people living with their families that might not be supportive. If they need to hide [their identity], we want to make that as easy as possible.”

Additionally, the program, according to the application form, asks that both the mentor and mentee “continuously and actively acknowledge the intersectionality of their own privileges and marginalizations and engage in anti-oppressive practices.”

“There are a lot of people with privileged and marginalized identities — each party can be privileged in different areas and it is important to acknowledge this and ensure that no one is generalizing their privileged experience to the other person,” said Chow.

Both students are hopeful that the mentorship program would signal to the trans community that they have a supportive family at UBC.

“I'm hoping that [through] this program, and maybe potentially other ones in the future, we'd be a visible support that people can access,” said Chow.

Gonzales concurred. “The survey sample size of trans folks at UBC is very small, so unless the university collects more data, it may not have a good idea of what the community needs.”