Robert Vega is the quintessential people person. As soon as he greets someone, his face lights up and he exudes a genuine interest in what they are saying. So it’s not difficult to see why he has been key in helping to start the University of Texas’ Pride and Equity Faculty-Staff Association and is involved in the University’s Gender and Sexuality Center.
His early career gave him global perspective. After earning an undergraduate degree in political science and a graduate degree in international relations from Boston University, Robert held interesting jobs abroad. Following a fellowship at the European Parliament, he taught English in Japan for three years under the Japan and Exchange Teaching Program. After departing the program, he decided to backpack through Asia before returning to the states. On his way to Boston, he stopped in Austin, fell in love with the city, and decided to stay.
Vega eventually joined the staff at UT, where today he teaches internship courses in the College of Liberal Arts and is the employer relations Coordinator for Liberal Arts Career Services.
One day in 2006, he was attending a meeting in the Dean of Students office when Career Counseling Director Lynne Milburn stopped by and said hello. “She told me that a group of GBLT faculty and allies were getting together for a meeting and that I should come,” he recalls.
He did attend, and encountered a group of faculty and staff who told their personal stories, sharing and learning what they were experiencing on campus.
“As I became more involved, I realized that something was missing,” says Vega. “It was a personal sense of gap: I felt I was advocating for staff and students in a variety of ways, but I was not involved in direct GBLT advocacy.”
The meeting was the start of PEFSA . Energized by the gathering, Vega joined the steering committee along with Mil- burn and soon they created a strategic plan. The association won praise and support from key faculty members such as Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl and associate Dean for Student Affairs Marc Musick.
Vega says that it was great timing to be on campus when the community came together in a social and educational way by creating this group. Having experienced this need first hand, he decided to get involved with UT’s Gender and Sexuality Center, joining the organization’s advisory group. This year, he is a co-chair of the advisory group for the center, which provides a safe place for students to educate and advocate for themselves.
This year, the advisory group is developing an orientation for new students, those out and not yet out, and their allies. The center’s staff encourages students who are involved to get together with students who have similar interests.
“We are also expanding the Lavender Graduation,” says Vega. “May 2010 will be our third year hosting this event celebrating the success of the GBLT students and allies graduating from the university.”
Vega says that PEFSA now has 78 dues-paying members and about 280 on their email list. “It’s nice to be involved with both of these groups. You can’t help but learn and become a better person when you share discussions of experiences.”
He says that connecting with these communities is inclusive and comfortable. “And at the same time, we’re always learning.”
For instance, PEFSA has done events such as reviewing the history of the GBLT community at UT. “That was something Lynne Milburn worked on at the Texas Equity Conference, which was organized by PEFSA ’s Domestic Partner Benefits Committee.” PEFSA has also held discussions on topics such as how to become an ally and how to create groups like this at other public universities across Texas.
The Gender and Sexuality Center brings in speakers and has social events. It also offers a “Peers for Pride” program which students sign up for – then they go out to become ambassadors for the community. “They have made a huge improvement in the climate at the university.” he says he feels it’s advantageous to have a center that is open and inviting – “not just for GBLT but for women’s issues, too.”
The Queer Student Alliance is also a force in the GBLT community at UT. In 2007-08 they put together a comprehensive report about GBLT affairs on campus. After that, the group was voted the best student organization on campus. QSA is probably the most well-known GBLT student organization on campus, but there are about 10 others, including a gay fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi.
Vega says that his networking with people on campus outside his own field has been “amazing” thanks to PEFSA . For instance, he has gotten to know current PEFSA chair Lindsey Schell, the person in the UT Library who oversees the Gender and Sexuality Library Collection.
“The expanded network has introduced me to students, staff and faculty who share many of my interests – I would not have had the opportunity to meet these people otherwise. This network has helped me professionally in that I now have contacts across colleges, student affairs divisions and administrative offices on whom I can call for help with programming ideas, finding resources and generating new contacts on and off campus.”
Resources for the GBLT campus community are significant, but Vega says the university still has a long way to go. “We need more. The tag line for PEFSA is ‘helping to make history.’ That’s true – but it’s a continuum. We should never stop. We need more student support and domestic partner benefits; plus a university and legislature that are inclusive.” through that kind of change, UT’s GBLT community will finally be on equal footing with the rest of the campus”.