A collection of past alumni at Carson-Newman College, a small, private, Baptist college located in Jefferson City, Tenn, have begun a group aimed at increasing GLBT awareness and fostering an environment of inclusion on campus. A new scholarship, independently created by these alumni, is now being offered to assist students who are advancing those ideals.
The LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman College was started on Facebook by alumnus Tom Cogburn over a year ago, and has now grown to its current 16 members who are are located across the country. Straight allies are also welcome to join the group.
The group is not affiliated with the university in any way, but Cogburn feels that many faculty members would welcome the opportunity to openly integrate LGBT students. He isn’t aware of any reaction from the college so far.
"I firmly believe that the attitudes of Carson-Newman administrators and professors mirror greater society’s attitudes when it comes to LGBT issues," Cogburn said. "So far there hasn’t been any negative backlash from the college. Of course, we’re not sure that the college even knows about our group or our scholarship. It’s likely that word will eventually reach college administrators."
In January 2010, member D. Brian Ailey of Chattanooga made the suggestion that the group establish a scholarship to help a Carson-Newman student who demonstrates the qualities that further group’s values of inclusion, education and spirituality. The LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman College Scholarship was created a few months later.
This summer the group became aware of a young person who had been sent to Carson-Newman by parents who hoped the school’s Christian atmosphere would “straighten” their child out. The student, who prefers to remain anonymous, chose a major in the creative arts field.
The recipient’s parents, who disagreed with this academic choice, decided that they would support the student’s basic educational expenses—mainly room and board—but not pay for the textbooks associated with the student’s field of study.
As soon as the alumni group heard of this student’s plight, there was immediate discussion that the scholarship should be awarded to this student to cover the costs of textbooks. The funds were quickly raised by the members of the LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman College—many of whom sent generous donations.
The first LGBT Alumni of Carson-Newman College Scholarship was awarded to this student not only as a means of meeting the student’s financial needs, but also to send a message of support and encouragement by Carson-Newman’s LGBT alumni.
"We have hope that current students might feel comfortable enough to join the group," said Cogburn. "Since it is an open group, membership in our group does not indicate sexual orientation of any kind."
Ailey says that previous attempts to form a group of this nature had been met with resistance. A message board inquiring about former GLBT alumni was instituted in the past, but a former alumnus and preacher had the board deleted.
"My (college) experience there was not too bad," Ailey said. "We even tried to start a gay-straight alliance back in 1983 and even had a faculty sponsor, but the college wouldn’t allow it. I was able to live fairly open to my friends, but I know other people felt uncomfortable."
Cogburn agrees that the disapproval from some corners is discouraging, but he feels moved to assist young people who may be struggling with issues related to their sexuality.
"Our ultimate goal is to help support the LGBT students at Carson-Newman," Cogburn said. "We know that there are openly gay students who are in attendance. We believe that by approaching the student body with a scholarship, instead of edicts and demands, it will ultimately prove helpful in integrating LGBT students and pro-LGBT issues into the school’s population. With Carson-Newman’s anti-LGBT history, it’s our goal to reach out to these students to let them know they are not alone."