In an effort to increase the diversity of the student body and its Semester in Washington program, GW offers a $3,000 scholarship to gay, lesbian and bisexual students.
“The goal is to really offer students as full an educational experience as possible,” said Gregory Lebel, associate professor of political management and director of Semester in Washington, which allows non-GW students to study in D.C. “Diversity in the classroom is an important factor to any complete educational experience.”
The Gill Foundation, which seeks to promote awareness of different sexual orientations, provides funds for the scholarship. Non-GW students apply for the scholarships, which are usually awarded to two applicants each semester.
Accepted students take two classes while studying and living at GW, and have opportunities through classes to meet notable figures such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said psychology professor Stephen Forssell, an openly gay professor. “I’m encouraged that GW is trying to encourage gays to come here and also trying to deliver the message that GW is a gay friendly campus.”
Forssell said that adding diversity to the classroom is always beneficial. “When I teach the sex differences class it can add a lot,” he said. “It always adds something, it really can’t detract.”
Forssell said scholarships are important for students who may have had negative experiences other places. “A lot of students who come out lose financial support,” Forssell said, “and the scholarship may provide a mechanism of support for gay students who may have had their financial resources threatened by coming out.”
John Amenda, executive director of The Outcrowd, an on-campus support group for gay, lesbian and bisexual students said “GW is one of the most tolerant universities that I know of.”
GW, along with Columbia University and the University of California system, is one of several colleges whose students receive Gill Foundation scholarships.
“At a small college a gay student may find a smaller community within their school to become a part of, but the advantage of GW is that we have an entire city as a resource, one that is very open and accepting of gays,” Amenda said.
While Forssell agrees that GW is a very tolerant university, he said homophobia still exists. “GW is very supportive, but (coming out) is still a terrifying process,” Forssell said, “The reality of life is that there is homophobia and it does express itself in very subtle ways that escape the purview of the University.”
Lebel, of the Semester in Washington program, said he has never heard any disparaging remarks directed at homosexuals.
“I have never had concerns expressed to me about negative incidents aimed at gay or lesbian students,” Lebel said, “My assumption is that this is a tolerant university and that these students have had a positive experience here and I would be shocked if I heard of serious issues.”
While Lebel said students who have been involved with the program have all had positive experiences, GW has not been able to attract as many students as they had hoped.
“The major issue is getting the word out,” he said, “we’ve had spotty participation and the biggest frustration is that we have the money, but haven’t been able to find students to give it out to. We haven’t yet found the best way to advertise the scholarship.”
The Gill Foundation usually has two students in the program per semester; this semester, it only has one.
Students can apply for the Gill Foundation Scholarship through GW’s Semester in Washington Web site, www.gwu.edu/~siw. Requirements for acceptance include a “competitive grade point average”, a written essay, work experience and political activity, community service, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation.
The Gill Foundation does not provide the only scholarship opportunities for gay and lesbian students. One of the largest benefactors for gays is The Point Foundation, which was started three years ago and is funded by private donations. This year, the Point Foundation gave 25 scholarships worth an average of $14,000 to students to study at any university in the country.
“Many of these students are in the top of their classes but have been disowned by their families and sent off to college by themselves; that’s where the Point Foundation comes in,” Vance Lancaster, the foundation’s executive director, said.
In addition to a four-year scholarship, students are also given a mentor for support and guidance. Students must maintain a 3.5 GPA and perform community service.
Lancaster said, “We support students who have been successful even though they have been marginalized because we feel under the right conditions they can excel even more.”