June is Pride Month, and this year, a program that has guided hundreds of Panthers on their journey to a college degree celebrates 20 years at FIU: the LGBTQA Mentorship Program.
Run by the FIU Pride Center in the Office of Social Justice and Inclusion, the program provides support, safety and guidance to LGBTQA students as they discover who they are. Students are matched with an LGBTQA faculty or staff mentor, with whom they meet confidentially throughout the year to identify and work toward personal goals. Students and their mentors may discuss anything from academics to the decision to come out, and more, in a nonjudgmental environment.
“The LGBTQA Mentorship Program has proven to be essential to the overall development, growth and learning of both the mentee and mentor, and we continue to be excited that we can offer programs with this type of rigor to the FIU community,” said David Bynes, director of the Office of Social Justice and Inclusion. Since 2018, the program has averaged 35 mentees and 22 mentors each year.
Through the mentorship program, students have a safe space to meet and network with peers. Throughout the year, the Pride Center hosts activities, such as game nights, where mentees can get to know each other. The center also organizes events for mentees to attend with their mentors, including guided tours of FIU’s museums. The goal is to facilitate bonds among mentees and mentors that extend beyond academics to support a student’s holistic achievement.
Leslie Seminario MS ’15, who is in her third year as a program mentor, said she has seen her mentees make significant strides while participating in the program, including becoming more confident and social and getting involved on campus.
“It’s so important for FIU to have a program like this, and the Pride Center as a whole, because right now, maybe more than ever, it’s scary to be a member of the LGBTQA community,” said Seminario, an FIU alumna and research specialist in the Dietetics & Nutrition program. “It’s great that FIU provides a safe space, a haven, for its students.”
Seminario said mentoring students has been a rewarding experience. She has seen some of her mentees go on to apply to graduate and medical school, and she remains in touch with them to provide recommendations and guidance as needed.
“I didn’t have a program like this when I was growing up, or even a gay alliance club at my high school. But I always knew the importance of finding my community – my chosen family,” said Seminario. “I think it’s important our students have someone maybe a little older than them who can validate their experience and be a role model.”
Seminario’s mentee, FIU Teach student Kami Hernandez, agrees the program has helped her build strong connections at FIU. Having emigrated from Chile in 2015 (a country where LGBTQA representation was not prominent when she was growing up), Hernandez said she was traditionally a shy teenager. During high school in Florida, she forged a handful of friendships in the LGBTQA community but still felt comfortable keeping her identity mostly to herself.
After graduating high school amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Hernandez set a goal to get involved on campus and find friends in the LGBTQA community at FIU. It’s what led her to the mentorship program, where she bonded with Seminario over a mutual love for Marvel.
“I tend to be quiet, but Leslie and I have so much in common. She really gets me talking,” Hernandez said. Hernandez is so grateful for Seminario’s guidance that she applied to participate in the program a second time. With plans to spend a year teaching STEM in the local public school system before applying to medical school, she said it’s reassuring to meet adults who share similar life experiences to her own.
“It’s encouraging to know there are older [LGBTQA] people who have done something with their lives and want to share what they’ve learned,” Hernandez said.
Set to graduate this year, Hernandez said she is proud of the progress she’s made at FIU. She is more confident and outgoing, and she has found a network of peers.
“The mentorship program is like a family,” Hernandez said.
FIU graduate and current Master of Arts in Global Affairs student Moon Medina said the program helped them navigate a heavy course load and make the right choices to determine their professional path. Medina plans to pursue a career in international development or human rights advocacy, and they earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations with minors in Spanish and political science and a certificate in Asian globalization and Latin America in 2021. Along the way, their mentors provided the support and guidance to succeed.
“[My mentor] was able to be there for me as a sounding board and helped me explore my career options to find which one brings me joy, which one makes me think the hardest,” said Medina, who found the program so valuable, they participated a second year with a new mentor.
With the encouragement of their mentors, Medina joined the FIU Pride Student Union’s executive board as a founding member, attended the Miami Beach Pride Parade, and assisted the Pride Center in its advocation for the university’s Chosen First Name Policy, which took effect in 2020. By building friendships within FIU’s LGBTQA community, Medina learned about the many and diverse identities in the community.
Medina shared this advice for students who may be considering applying for the LGBTQA Mentorship Program: “One of the best parts is being able to talk to people you already have something in common with, just by being in the program. Make sure you make the most of it – not just the professional side, but the personal side, as well.”
Applications are still being accepted for the upcoming cohort. Interested students may follow the Pride Center on Instagram and Facebook for more information.