By Jack Sobel
One of the trademarks of the educational experience at New College is the Independent Study Project (ISP), and thesis student Nicholas Pracko pursued an especially purposeful one in January—about the local LGBTQ+ community.
For the biopsychology/neuroscience student, who plans to graduate in December, the ISP research led directly into his thesis: Gender in Higher Education.
With the help of Center for Engagement and Opportunity (CEO) Director Dwayne Peterson, Pracko spent his January Interterm working on a project called LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Conversations. It involved facilitating interactive dialogue between students at New College and elder residents at Senior Friendship Centers in Sarasota.
“My career coach, Dwayne, mentioned Robert Rogers at Senior Friendship Centers, and showed me some of the work he had been doing with LGBTQ+ people. I love working with older people (I grew up volunteering in nursing homes and calling bingo for the residents),” Pracko said. “I wanted to get more involved in the LGBTQ+ community, so I decided to talk to Robert and design an ISP. We landed on the idea of a sustainable, intergenerational, conversational program that would touch on some difficult topics between the two generations and provide mental health resources to participants (given the difficult nature of some topics).”
According to Pracko, the conversations generally touched upon the linguistic elements of daily life experienced by members of the LGBT+ community. The discussion topics were: coming out, language and identity, experiences as an LGBTQ+ person, and a final discussion about reflections on the program (with a focus on hope and resilience).
More specifically, “[they] talked about how important it is to define the language of the LGBTQ+ community for yourself and how having difficult conversations is the best way to move forward,” Pracko said. “The conversations allowed for a universal narrative to develop—one of courage, perseverance and shared experiences.”
The consensus among the participants in the discussion was that, while shared experiences were common, that didn’t mean they were—or had to be—uniform. Finding connections provided comfort for the participants, who were provided with an outlet to discuss their shared experiences. There were many aspects of the ISP that left Pracko inspired.
“To quote Robert, ‘my heart was singing’ after every meeting, but genuinely my heart was full. One of the most impactful moments of the program was week two, when we talked about language and identity. We had a great conversation about the word ‘queer’ and how it meant two very different things based on the generation,” Pracko said. “As one of the participants described, the group meetings were like returning to the mother ship and charging up together. It was truly a wonderful experience.”
There was also an added benefit, given the timing of the ISP. Because it took place in January, right in the middle of the pandemic, Pracko found that “many of the program members said that it brought them a sense of community and connection, which is needed in the COVID-19 context.”
And, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pracko’s project was conducted entirely online. There is actually a website that currently displays the work (viewable here). Having the January Interterm to create this project gave Pracko a sense of intellectual freedom—an experience only New College could have provided.
“This program played an incredible role in supporting LGBTQ+ oral history, and it allowed the other participants and me to learn and grow,” Pracko said. “New College allowed me the flexibility to conduct my own program and gave me the tools to do it.”
The experience, as a whole, helped Pracko toward his future career goals.
“I want to be a counselor and specialize in helping people who identify as LGBTQ+. My thesis research is on social dysphoria in higher education and how it impacts academic motivation/learning. I’m interested in the ways that New College’s culture influences social dysphoria,” Pracko said. “More specifically, I want to know how/what policies can be put into place so that gender non-conforming students can feel most comfortable in the classroom. I hope my thesis research helps shine a light on the culture around gender in higher education and how it impacts academic motivation/learning.”
Jack Sobel is an intern in the Office of Communications & Marketing.