Student Spotlight: Xandro Xu
If you don’t already know, I am Carola Agostini, a freshman here at the University of Pennsylvania. My goal, with the help of University Life, is to show the real college experience at Penn and to showcase the bright students that make this place so special. Recently, I interviewed Aditi Singh, a bright young woman who overcame very difficult circumstances and found herself after getting lost. If you are interested in reading Aditi’s story you can check it out here.
Fast forward a few weeks later, I interviewed yet another bright young student named Xandro Xu. Midterm week was particularly difficult for Penn students, especially those in the Psychology department. As I took brief breaks between studying, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and saw a poster for events happening in the incoming week. The list was titled QPenn week. Interestingly enough, I was coordinating an interview with Xandro Xu to discuss the planning of this event, but since I was focused on my midterm, I had scheduled it for the following week. It was Wednesday, March 23. I just took my midterm, and I revised the event list for QPenn to see if I could report on a specific event for the interview. Then I saw there was an ice skating event that very night. An idea brewed in my head, “What if I interview Xandro at the ice rink?”
To be completely honest, I thought he would decline my proposal because it was so last minute. Little did I know that two minutes later, he responded to my email by saying yes to the interview.
I was shocked, to say the least, but also very excited. At night, I went to the ice rink and had the pleasure of interviewing Xandro Xu.
Xandro Xu is a Chinese freshman here at Penn. He works with the LGBT Center, and he is a Vice Chair of Education at Lambda Alliance, an umbrella organization of the LGBTQ+ affinity groups for queer students. In that role, he is tasked with the great responsibility of organizing QPenn, a week of events, to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community presence on campus. When speaking to him at this event, I could tell just how passionate he was about representing and fighting for this community. I could also tell just how important this event was for him and his team. They were all very welcoming, and I could tell how much effort they put into making QPenn a success.
Xandro and I come from very different backgrounds, but I found I could relate to a lot of what he was saying. I think a lot of people would benefit from learning from Xandro mainly because he is unapologetic about his background. Despite feeling difficult to express himself and his sexual identity, he was able to not only come to terms with who he is, but be proud of it. That, to me, is not only honorable but brave. We also had a meaningful conversation on the concept of trust. I’m sure we are not the only ones who have experienced this, but trust can be a very tricky thing. Our families encouraged us to not trust anyone for a variety of reasons. Particularly, as a student from an underrepresented community, it can be very daunting to let your guard down in the face of uncertainty or intolerance; however, during our talk, we both agreed it is necessary. As humans, we need to be able to trust, to have friendships and to love, because that’s something we deserve. Everyone deserves the chance to be happy because we are not machines meant to be perfect, unemotional, and merely productive — we are human.
Another thing that I noted whilst talking to Xandro was how he valued spontaneous outings with his friends as the best times he’s had on campus. He very much reminded me of all the memories I made since coming here: the multiple adventures and laughs made on a whim. That is what the Penn experience is and should be. Penn is hard, don’t get us wrong. We are not saying you shouldn’t study, but the Penn experience should be more than that. Your time at Penn should be about growth and connection. Moreover, what makes Penn special is not the academics or the aesthetics, it’s the people. It’s the people, as Xandro says, who go on spontaneous strolls down Locust Walk or make you laugh after a long day. It’s especially those people who support you unconditionally. Thus, like Xandro suggests, there is nothing wrong in giving up one or two hours of studying to have a fun time. Who knows what could happen. Maybe you meet your soulmate. Maybe you’ll have a night that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. What you should learn from Xandro is to be open-minded and open to the possibilities, be unapologetically yourself, and fight for the things you believe in. That is what the Penn experience is all about.
Before I sign off, I want to extend my gratitude to Xandro Xu for this interview and welcoming me to this event with open arms. I can report the event was extremely fun, even for an island girl that can’t skate. I also strongly recommend that everyone look forward to and attend next year’s QPenn as a way to support and uplift the LGBTQ+ community in our campus.
Until next time,
- Tell us a little about yourself, how did you come to join the center, and what do you enjoy most about being part of the community?
- First thing about me is that I’m Chinese. Growing up in a very small town with little diversity, I found that being myself in terms of my sexual identity was a bit hard initially. It was hard because, in most cases, immigrant parents are intolerant to such matters in regards to the LGBTQ + community. Initially, my parents were not very happy with me coming out as gay. However, I’m very lucky that I have such loving parents that really thought it through and said “this is my son and I love him exactly for who he is”. I’m really glad I have such a supportive family. Regarding the LGBTQ+ community at Penn, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of right away. In high school, I didn’t really have the chance to advocate for this community as much as I wanted to due to the fact that my school was very homogeneous. So I was very happy that I could do that at Penn, and it was something I knew I wanted to do.
- What work do you do with the LGBT center?
- I am a program assistant in the LGBTQ+ center, basically, it’s a front desk job where I help people find their way and use our resources. I also work by providing confidential and unconditional support to students that come to us for help. I also help with a collective to promote minorities through works of art.
- What is QPenn? What is the purpose of this event?
- QPenn is a week designed to really celebrate, uplift, and amplify the LGBTQ+ community on campus. It is a week to show the presence of the community on campus, to say, “this is who we are and here we are.” QPenn is the week to bring underrepresented minorities to light.
- Why did you choose to organize the event this year? What was your goal for this year’s QPenn?
When I first came to Penn, I was very interested in joining the Lambda Alliance, which is an umbrella organization of different LGBTQ+ affinity groups on campus. I participated in a pre-orientation called pinnacle and one of the group leaders was an officer for Lambda Alliance, which motivated me even more to join. Thus, I joined Lambda Alliance and during the fall semester, I ran for the board position of vice chair of education. Historically, this position is responsible for organizing QPenn so that is how I fell into the role.
As for the planning of the event itself. It was great. However, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding whether it would be possible due to the COVID-19 restrictions at the time. We didn’t start planning it until February, at which time we were certain the event could be held. Obviously, with such a huge event, we would’ve loved to start planning sooner, but the circumstances did not allow for it. What made this event possible was the teamwork. We delegated tasks to each other, and we were able to work together to pull this off, for which I am immensely grateful. It was really important to us that this event was held because it is the first QPenn in three years. Our goal was to bring QPenn back and to hold it in person, even if it wasn’t as big as it was in previous years. We wanted people to know that this is a week and that it’s an event everyone should look forward to. I also want to mention that as a freshman, I feel like I learned a lot not only about planning but about the older folks in the community. Getting to know them while planning the event helped me understand how things work behind the scenes and I’m really grateful for that opportunity.
- How was it planning this event? What were your main takeaways and what do you hope students learned or obtained from QPenn?
- Planning this event was hectic, but also very fun. Again, I think the main reason why this event worked was for the team behind it. It was really heartwarming to meet so many people willing to collaborate to make this event a reality and also to see such initiative from them. Something that I learned from this experience is that planning should’ve been done a little earlier, but due to the circumstances it was obviously not the ideal situation.
- Which was your favorite event from QPenn?
- I really liked the opening event; we had people perform and speak, it was a great vibe to kick off the week. We had a great turnout. Apart from that, I also liked today’s event because it seems like a grand gesture. We decorated the whole ring and we even have an inflatable in the back. I love ice skating, so I think this is a fun gesture for the community and it’s one of the events I’ve liked most so far.
- What is your fondest memory from your time with the LGBT Center?
- I’m not very good at remembering things, but I would have to say my fondest memory is the staff meetings. This is where the staff, the director and the assistant director come together to talk. I like the sense of community and talking to people, so that is what I cherish the most.
- What is the best piece of advice or the most valuable lesson you have learned while working with the LGBT Center?
- I would say be really open-minded, empathetic and understanding. This is because you never know what someone is going through and as workers in the center, our job is to help people. If we were to assume things, we would have a very skewed view of situations. So definitely a valuable lesson is to approach things with an open mind.
- What advice would you give future planners to make QPenn even better? Any ideas?
- Something that I did that really helped with the planning was the delegation of certain roles. Initially, I was stressed about QPenn because I thought I would have to plan this whole event by myself. But again, building a community and a group of peers that are there to support you is really important. This not only allows for a creative flow of ideas but also builds that sense of community that QPenn really is all about. Just really seek out help because it’s an event that can’t be done by one person. Another tip I would give to future planners is to seek out the community, allow for other cultural resource centers to help and spread the word. Finally, I would just suggest you give yourself ample time to plan QPenn.
Change of Plan
During the pandemic, Oliver Kaplan transferred to Penn looking for a fresh start. A philosophy class altered his academic focus; he now hopes to shape educational policy for LGBTQ+ students.
Oliver Kaplan knew he had to make a change when, two months after his freshman year on a rural college campus, he was outed. Kaplan, who describes himself as “very closeted” until that point, had recently attended a discussion on LGBT rights, and his roommate started telling, first friends, then Kaplan’s parents, that Kaplan was gay.
“At that point, I thought, Well, do I try to correct people? Because I don’t know if I’m ready to be out, but if I correct people, then people are just going to assume I’m straight, and I’ll have to be closeted for the rest of my time here,” he says.
First, he met with the office of residential life, trying to get his roommate transferred to a different room. But since outing wasn’t a violation of any written rule, they “kind of threw their hands up and said, ‘Well, it’s not in our handbook.’”
Outing is a unique situation, Kaplan says. “If you’re not gay, you don’t understand how important that information is.” People try to equate outing to racial identity, and it’s not the same, says Kaplan, whose mother is Chinese and father is Jewish. “If someone were to say, ‘What if I tell other people that you’re Asian? What does that matter?’ Well, first of all, race and sexuality are not the same; you can tell my race from my face, but you can’t discern my sexuality,” he says.
Coming out, first to friends, then family, was a seven-month process that took place during the pandemic. At that point, Kaplan had become determined to transfer schools and had an interest in Penn. Kaplan contacted Erin Cross, director of the LGBT Center, who connected him with a Penn student who later became a mentor.
Penn is consistently ranked as one of the top schools for LGBTQ+ support, says Cross. The LGBT Center is the second oldest of its kind in the country, she says, “so we’ve had a history to build up community, sub-communities, academic ties, and links across the University.” As a response to homophobic campus incidents, Penn included sexual orientation in the University’s non-discrimination clause during the early 1980s. “We were at the forefront,” Cross says. “Penn and the city of Philadelphia have worked hard to make sure LGBTQ+ folks feel as safe as they possibly can, but there’s always more to do.”
Taking up Space: Furthering Queer Health Education on Campus
It’s 9 a.m. on a wintery Tuesday in the middle of Stommons, and unexpectedly, my day begins with a smile and a hug. Within the first five seconds of our meeting, Steven Chen eases any pre–interview butterflies lingering in my belly. The plan is to ask a few questions, sip my lukewarm cappuccino, and take notes. But as I listen, I can already tell it’s going to be one of those mornings that weigh on my mind and my heart for the rest of the day.
Steven’s initial warmth reveals a lot about who he is as a person. My suspicion is that he’s not just being nice and friendly to the Street reporter who badgered him to meet at 9 a.m. right before finals week. He’s just welcoming to anyone and everyone who could use an early morning smile. “My parents always taught me to use my education and resources to support other people,” he explains.
And Steven does exactly that. Every Friday afternoon, Steven leads the OurSpace Sexual Health Education Program—a collaboration between the Netter Center and the LGBT Center—to teach high school students, along with Penn students, the need–to–knows about queer sexual health. OurSpace was established in the spring of 2021, and after helping to facilitate the program, Steven was asked to become the OurSpace coordinator by his supervisor, Paulette Branson.
“There’s a lot of stigma and toxicity surrounding discussions on queer sexual health and sexual health in general, so we just want to change that from the ground level,” he says. A health and societies major and urban education minor, Steven knew early on in his education that he wanted to combine the two disciplines while studying pre–med at Penn.
OurSpace fills the gap between those two fields of study. Steven facilitates financial literacy workshops, community building exercises, and queer history lessons. Last semester, the team administered ten sexual health workshops through the Mazzoni Center. “It’s a very queer–inclusive sexual education, especially because through the research I did in the summer and through talking in general with a lot of health actors in West Philadelphia, I realized that there is no access to comprehensive queer health education,” Steven says. “A lot of health educators feel uncomfortable talking about these topics.”
Campus Pride Features Penn’s LGBT Center
Penn’s LGBT Center, the second oldest LGBT Center in the country, was featured by Campus Pride during the Fall ’21 semester. Intern Ayla Azim, from Campus Pride, (she/her) interviewed Malik Muhammad (he/him), the Associate Director of the LGBT Center and Erin Cross (she/her), the Director of the LGBT Center to learn more about their work and advocacy on campus. In the interview, Malik and Erin highlight the programming provided by the center and share the ease with which students can get involved on campus in a variety of LGBTQ+ organizations.
The University of Pennsylvania has more than 25 student organizations are dedicated to LGBTQ+ life. These organizations include Penn J-Bagel, a Jewish LGBTQ+ group, the Lambda Alliance,umbrella group of undergraduate LGBTQ+ organizations, and oSTEM, a group for LGBTQ+ people in STEM fields.
The LGBT Center and the University of Pennsylvania are exceptionally proud of their efforts to make campus more inclusive. In the interview, Erin and Malik share that the foundation of their work stems from Penn’s non-discrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation, and gender identity. The creation of this policy has led to the development of health care plans that are available to students, faculty, and staff that include trans and gender affirming care. The creation of all gender housing and bathrooms across campus have also been major projects to increase comfort and inclusion. Students who go through the existing name process receive two diplomas; one with their legal/dead name and another with their name. Currently, the Center is partnering with the Office of the Registrar and others to enable students to designate their pronouns and name in campus systems. Students may also elect to receive multiple diplomas; one document with their legal/dead name and another with their chosen name. Currently, the center is partnering with the Office of the Registrar to make it easier for students to designate their preferred pronouns and preferred name on university documents.
Erin and Malik are excited to see the university grow in its inclusive practices and will continue advocating and improving ways in which the LGBTQ+ population is supported at Penn.
Founder of Penn LGBT Center Bob Schoenberg dies at 76
Founder and long-time Director of the Penn LGBT Center Bob Schoenberg died suddenly on Monday from cancer.
Schoenberg — who received a master of social work and a doctor of social work from the School of Social Policy & Practice in 1968 and 1989, respectively — founded the LGBT Center in 1982 after witnessing a Penn sophomore being severely beaten and targeted on Locust Walk for being gay. He served as the LGBT Center’s director for 35 years until retiring in 2017.
Schoenberg was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1944 and died at a residential hospice in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, according to his obituary.
According to the LGBT Center website, while Schoenberg was a doctoral student at Penn, he was hired to work three days per week as a “point person for lesbian and gay student concerns.” He was the second person in the country to have such responsibilities at a college or university, his obituary reads.
University staff reflect on assisting LGBTQ college students during pandemic
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, college students have had to live their lives a little differently than initially planned. This includes taking online classes and not engaging with that same sense of camaraderie they would have felt if they attended college in person.
Many LGBTQ students, in particular, felt a specific form of isolation. But how did campus staff members assist these students? PGN spoke with representatives from departments specializing in diversity and inclusion at Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania on how students felt, what the staff did to combat these issues, and how they plan to move forward.
Erin Cross, the director for UPenn’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center, noted the impact of financial issues on transgender and gender-nonconforming students. She said there was a huge uptick in students who applied for UPenn’s Townsend Munro Fund, which assists students making gender transitions. She noted that a high number of students applied for it during the pandemic as they now had to pay for food and rent in addition to medical supplies and other things necessary for transition.