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Male students at Mills express discomfort in classes

Men make up twenty percent of the graduate students on the Mills campus. (Monika Sabic)
Men make up twenty percent of the graduate students on the Mills campus. (Monika Sabic)

In the same semester that Mills College announced its new admissions policy regarding transgender students, and its first transgender student body president began his term, the conversation about the place of men at Mills continues.

After just one class, one student, Darin Jensen, quietly withdrew from a course in the Institute for Civic Leadership.

Jensen, an MFA student and an adjunct cartography professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was the only member of his split level Social Leadership Change Seminar to choose the personal gender pronoun “he.” It didn’t take him long to feel that some students were not happy he was there. According to him, in the first hour of his class, he got the “stare down” from some classmates.

“I felt unwelcome — it was palpable,” Jensen said. He felt uncomfortable and withdrew from the course, saying that his presence in the class would be distracting.

Visiting Associate Professor Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, who teaches the course, said she did not pick up on the dynamic Jensen described but realized almost immediately that the class might not be a good fit.

Quickly attuned to the culture of her classroom, Seyer-Ochi said,  “Being an older, white man, in this context, was a factor.”

In a survey of the class, many students said they were interested in gaining experience and confidence in social leadership roles that Seyer-Ochi realized Jensen already had.

“In a world where women are not developed to be assertive leaders, you need a certain kind of space to be vulnerable, to grow and to talk it out, ” she said.

Despite Jensen’s value as a resource for the class, Seyer-Ochi said, she decided not to risk the space of her class to push the issue of his remaining in it. Instead, she will supervise Jensen in an independent study.

According to Tonianne Nemeth, administrator for the English department, some lower division courses are restricted to undergraduate students — therefore excluding male graduate students; although Social Change Leadership was a split level class, open to graduate students like him, Jensen said he made the decision to leave for his own comfort.

“But I will miss out on the expertise shared in the classroom and the perspective of fellow students,” Jensen said.

Jeff Von Ward, writer and co-founder of the Bay Area colleges’ MFA Mixer, considered Mills for graduate school, but chose a program with more gender-balanced classes.

“I thought it would be strange to be the only guy, ” he said.

Director of Graduate Admissions, Erin Connelly, was surprised by Von Ward’s comment, as she has never heard anyone give this as a reason they chose another school over Mills.

“Mills is an intensely inclusive community as a whole, ” Connelly said.

Sophomore Gina DePaul came to Mills knowing that there would be male graduate students on campus; however she, was surprised that they would be in her undergraduate classes.

“I came to a historically women’s college for the camaraderie with other women, not other women with men thrown into the mix,” DePaul said in an email.  ” I think Mills needs to inform students, whether first years, transfers, resumers, whoever, that there is the possibility of having a male student in their undergrad classes.”

However, after she got used to the male presence in her classrooms, DePaul said that she no longer felt like it was an issue.

“The whole point of coming to a school like Mills is to be embraced, wholly, and to embrace others in the same way,” DePaul said.  “Male grad students have a right to be in the classroom, and nobody should make them feel as if they don’t.”

Although men make up 20 percent of the graduate program, the gender balance varies widely across departments. It is not uncommon to be the only man in an English class.

“Yeah, it is weird to be the only guy,” Jensen said, “and that’s why it’s a good thing to do. I am always holding a mirror to myself.”

Jensen says that he conducts himself with the same sense of social justice in the classroom as he does to his work and in his daily life, but he is more aware, at Mills, of how his efforts are being perceived.

“I get the sense that some people are bemused that I might feel like ‘the other’ for the first time, when I’ve felt like the other for most of my life,” Jensen said. “ I’ve been the only queer in the room.”

For some, the gender balance of classes at Mills remains a non-issue.

Visiting Assistant Professor Meredith May said she was nervous the first time a man, Freddy Gutierrez, joined her journalism class last year and wondered how the other students would react.  But she soon found she had no reason to worry.

“It was seamless,” May said. “He had a wonderful perspective, as a poet, a parent, a student and a man.”

Gutierrez, now a Mills alum, said his gender never seemed to be an issue of any sort “or even a point of interest” to the class. He also appreciated that no one made him feel like he had to represent all males, or all parents, or all men of color despite his minority status in all three of these categories.

Undergraduate Rebecca Vicino said that it’s crucial for people to understand where they are going to school and that identity is a crucial thing to consider at Mills.

“It’s crucial to remember that we’re all dealing with life’s absurdity,” Vicino said.  “It’s unfair to outcast men when we as feminists believe in gender equality — and if you don’t believe in gender equality … you’re at the wrong school.

Alum Evan Nichols said he was more aware of being old than of being the only man in his classes at Mills.

“I was also probably over-sensitive that these women had selected an undergraduate experience where they wouldn’t be in class with a male classmate, and yet, there I was, sitting in the corner,” Nichols said.

Nichols’ wishes, in retrospect, that there had been a greater gender and age balance in his graduate program.

“In general, I think I held myself back somewhat, being a straight man, being married and not wanting to seem too forward in my conversations, and even friendships, with female classmates,” Nichols said.

Sometimes, Nichols said he didn’t join a conversation when he felt that the class didn’t need any more of “the white male perspective.”

Junior Acacia Lasita said she was hesitant to go into a split-level course. Her decision to not enroll in the class was partially due to the fact it would have male graduate students in it.

“I’ve had male TAs before, and that was fine,” Lasita said.  “But when there are male students and the class is discussing issues of race or gender, things can get icky fast, especially if the man is white.”

Sometimes personality influences how much gender is considered an issue. An undergrad, Selena Matranga, described her ambivalence about a man in her classes she called “socially passive.”

“I have thought about his presence a lot in terms of how he feels to be in a space dominated by non-male people, and I think his demeanor might convey slight discomfort or maybe he’s intimidated,” Matranga said. “I think the majority of people here have strong opinions about male oppression, which makes the space slightly inclusive and dominating.”

Matranga worries about perpetuating a woman-only culture at the expense of not knowing how to navigate beyond the walls.

“You really only need to step 100 feet off the campus of Mills. … I think we live in a bubble at this school, and I’m not sure if it’s helping or hurting us,” she said.

Jensen believes that, in light of these mixed feelings, gender is becoming more of an issue at Mills.

“The gender binary is the crux of it,” said Jensen. “Mills draws undergraduates who want single-sex education and also those who rail against gender norms. But increasingly gender is understood as a spectrum, a lot of people don’t fit into one or the other.”

Rex Leonowicz, poet and trans/queer activist agrees.  His experience as a Mills man on campus was “fraught and awful, scrambling just to be accepted as trans and male.” Leonowicz says that the lack of institutional infrastructure to support the trans experience heightens “how gender happens in the classroom, in all departments.”

Jensen goes one further: “I don’t think Mills is going to stay a women’s college. That paradigm is on its way out of our culture. What can Mills really do? Take measurements? Ask, ‘how much girl are you?’”

Jensen’s experience is an illustration of the balancing act that is educational justice. He hopes that some good will come out of it. Seyer-Ochi brought Jensen’s feedback to her Social Leadership Change Seminar for further discussion.

“Now, how do we move from individual situations with students and professors to the larger conversation?” Seyer-Ochi said. ” To my point, if there is a need for space for women and other marginalized voices, well, what are those spaces?”

CORRECTION: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that male graduate students are not permitted to enroll in lower-division courses and that they may enroll in upper-division courses with instructor consent. Some lower-division courses do allow graduate students to enroll and instructor consent is not always required for upper-division courses; these restrictions apply to all graduate students and are not gender-specific. This version has been updated to reflect the correct information.