The K.C. Potter Center is the home of Vanderbilt University’s Office of LGBTQI Life. Its new director, Chris Purcell, is now completing his second month on the job, and in those two months he’s been a very busy man. Though he can be soft-spoken, his passion for his work is immediately clear.
Chris was active in student life and student orientation as an undergraduate at Western New England University. For most of his college career, he wasn’t out, and he recalled coming to his senior year and realizing, “I was in every club and took so many leadership positions to avoid facing my identity issues – when I was by myself in my room I was so sad that I couldn’t be the full me everywhere.” So when he continued his education in a graduate program in higher education and student affairs at the University of Vermont, an internship at the LGBTQA center there shaped his career direction, bringing together his studies and his commitment to students struggling with sexual identity.
Upon graduating, Chris spent 3 years as program coordinator for LGBT life at Duke, organizing events and increasing the educational impact and visibility of the center there. Then he returned to Boston as associate director of student activities at Berklee College of Music and worked in first year advising. While there he also worked to fill the gap in LGBT life, in the absence of a formal program.
A return to work in LGBT programming and the new opportunity has brought him to Vanderbilt. Rather than settling in to passively learn the system, Chris has actively undertaken what he calls a cultural audit. “Before making any changes, I wanted to talk to as many students, faculty and staff as possible to get a feeling for what they feel the University needs.” To this end Chris extended an open invitation to the University community to come meet with and talk to him, and many faculty and graduate students, as well as some undergraduates, have taken him up on it.
New plans and goals for the Office of LGBTQI Life will unfold as the new team develops an updated understanding of the community’s goals and aspirations, but Chris has already found one thing “crystal clear.” Those meetings have shown Chris that, “We want this Center to be a community space to encourage and sustain ally behavior, to engage faculty and staff as well as students, to bring the culture of Vanderbilt more into line with its policies, and to create more engagement among the undergraduate community.”
Chris believes these goals are more than attainable. Progressive policies like those enacted by Vanderbilt in recent years “provide a framework, and have shown the University to stand, generally, on the right side of this issue. Being able to work in unison with, rather than against, the institution is wonderful.” But positive programming and engagement, such as the very successful visit by young activist Zach Wahls and the upcoming program with Laverne Cox, are key to shifting the culture of the place.
In order to promote the Center’s work at Vanderbilt, Chris wants the Center to be visible in the wider Nashville community: “We want to work with you, we want Vanderbilt to continue to be a strong partner in the Nashville community.” In order to work more effectively in the Vanderbilt and Nashville communities, however, he explains, “We want people to know about us, we need to get the word out better, to a wider audience.” More importantly, he wants people to see not the red brick walls of the K. C. Potter House, but the smiling faces of people who are touched by the activities of the Center. “We want to tell our stories, as people, better so that people see that things are happening, and changing.”
In the end, developing this community and demonstrating as visibly as possible that LGBT lives can be lives filled with joy, opportunity, and social acceptance is the essential mission of places like the K. C. Potter Center. This mission aims to ensure that as few young men and women as possible find themselves alone in their rooms, like Chris recalls, struggling with their inability to live without a mask. “I felt well liked as long as I hid,” he says about what drives his commitments. “I couldn’t be the authentic me. The 16 year old who wasn’t sure he should live, the 20 year old who couldn’t be himself: those experiences drive my work today.”