It did not take long for Geisel School of Medicine students Jacqueline Gresham ’21 and Sand Mastrangelo ’21 to notice an important community need wasn’t being met—so during their first year of medical school they stepped in to fill the void.
After learning about TLC Family Resource Center’s programs, including Rural Outright, which supports the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies, Gresham got involved.
“Sand and I are both queer medical students and we understand LGBTQIA+ teens face unique obstacles to obtaining affirming healthcare in a way their straight, cis-gendered peers do not,” Gresham acknowledges.
Through their involvement with the teens of Rural Outright, Gresham and Mastrangelo observed a lack of programming between the greater LGBTQIA+ community and “our amazing community of out-and-proud medical students.”
“We decided to bridge that gap,” Gresham says, “because interacting with successful LGBTQIA+ people can help teens with identity formation, mental health, and ultimately shift health outcomes in meaningful ways.”
, a collaborative experiment between LGBTQIA+ teens and Geisel medical students was born. The aim is to capture the experiences of rural queer life using visual media and create meaningful community through mentorship.The goal is to positively influence the mental and social domains of wellness for youth living in the Upper Valley.
Denial of identity has a negative effect on mental health and a few seconds of microaggression makes a lasting impression that can lead to an unwillingness to engage in social activity—and further isolation.
Social mentorship programs for this population are few—the most prominent being Rural Outright, and Outright Vermont whose mission is to build safe, healthy, and supportive environments for LGBTQIA+ youth ages 13-22. Both organizations support GSTAs (gay-straight-trans alliances), which are student-run high school and middle school organizations where students can openly talk about issues related to sexual orientation and work to cultivate accepting educational communities.
Gresham says programs such as these were illegal in her Alabama high school, “We did not have GSTAs, nor did we have social service agencies providing these sorts of networks and social support, and a recent survey indicates that 90 percent of the state’s schools still do not.”
But Mastrangelo, a former ninth-grade teacher who grew up in a more accepting community, knows first-hand the value of a GSTA and mentoring. “As an ‘out’ educator and someone who benefited from mentoring when I was young, I felt our rural outreach project would be beneficial to Upper Valley LGBTQIA+ teens,” she says.
Initially, Gresham and Mastrangelo identified fellow Geisel students interested in being a guiding spirit to a teen—attending movies and other events with them in the Rural Outright office—then hosted a kick-off event at a Claremont bowling alley late last year that brought mentors and teens together. Citing crippling social anxiety for their lack of social interaction, several teens said this was their first night out in months.
LGBTQIA+ teens who are navigating the coming out process often have varying mental health issues—trauma, unaccepting family and community members, and bullying at school—benefit from interacting with successful adults who have similar life experiences, Mastrangelo notes.
“These students felt at ease and were have a great time connecting with one another,” Mastrangelo says. “At that moment Jaci and I realized we did not completely understand the magnitude of their need to be socially engaged. Having the social support of Geisel medical students shows them it’s okay be visible.”
As the evening drew to a close, the bowling alley manager gave Gresham and Mastrangelo 25 pairs of tickets for a free night of bowling—one for each of the teens and one for a date. This was a meaningful gesture because these teens will not be taking a gender-conforming partner bowling—it will be a queer date.
For Gresham and Mastrangelo, who are both Schweitzer Fellows, an important distinction of this mentorship program is its underlying focus on the social determinants of health. “When we approach healthcare from the standpoint that all people are influenced by their broader sociopolitical environments, we begin to appreciate the complex nature of being a true patient ally—it’s about addressing needs beyond what people present to you in clinic in an affirming, conscientious way,” Mastrangelo says.
Gresham agrees, “This project transcends sexual orientation—these are intersectional issues that are going to follow these teens throughout their lives. This is a form of preventative care and we are really grateful Geisel supports this.”
Maggie Monroe-Cassel, executive director of TLC, says she has found great success is partnering with other agencies and organizations to meet the needs of Upper Valley families. “We are happy to partner with Jaci and Sand to support their vision of a mentoring program for LGBTQIA+ youth in rural New Hampshire. Through Rural Outright, medical student mentors have begun to reach out to youth who would like a mentor who has experienced some of the same issues they have—it gives these young people vital support as they look towards their futures.”
“TLC has been instrumental in that aspect,” Gresham says. “Neither Sand nor I went into this thinking we would be providing mental health support—we want to operate within what we are familiar with, but at the same time work with people who have the resources and capacity to connect kids to what they need.”