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Pride Center honors LGBTQ seniors at Lavender Graduation

Published on April 17, 2024

Pride Center honors LGBTQ seniors at Lavender Graduation

The class of 2024
Graduating seniors recognized at the 2024 Lavender Graduation

With the largest graduating cohort ever of queer students, the Pride Center at Eastern Connecticut State University recently hosted its seventh Lavender Graduation. President Elsa Núñez and awardees Billi Kozak and Arden Parzych were honored during the ceremony. 

During the opening remarks, Núñez was honored with a rainbow tassel — the gift all graduating seniors get at Lavender Graduation. Nicole Potestivo, coordinator of the Pride Center, thanked Núñez for how she has “lifted the LGBTQ community up” since becoming Eastern's president in 2006. 

To the graduates, Núñez said, “I hope you can take a quiet moment to think about your journey, about how you’ve been nurtured into your truest self. I hope Eastern was able to be a place of comfort and acceptance for you. You have built strength and resilience, and taught your peers and myself these qualities.” 

Jennifer Paradis reflects on the Pride Center's beginnings
Jennifer Paradis reflects on the Pride Center's beginnings

Alumna Jennifer Paradis ’09 reflected on the changes to LGBTQ resources on campus since her time at Eastern. Coming out of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the Defense of Marriage Act and the AIDs epidemic, she and other queer students “were looking for a home — our home” on campus.

“As Stonewall, sit-ins and all the work until now has shown,” said Paradis, “our ancestors are resilient and so are we.” 

It all changed in 2006, she said, when she asked around about spaces that could be turned into a safe space for queer students. After many meetings with the administration and the help of mentors, Paradis helped establish Eastern’s Pride Room in a closet beneath the Student Center stairs. “We didn’t care,” she said. “We loved it all the same.” 

Now, 18 years later, the Pride Center that emerged from the original Pride Room has expanded and flourished, offering numerous services for queer and questioning students on campus.  

Two students were also presented with awards for their work at Eastern.  

Biology major Billi Kozak received the LGBTQ Campus Community Award for their efforts in cultivating a welcoming atmosphere for queer students on campus. They hosted “My T Story,” where they taught other students about the transgender experience. Kozak has been described as an affirming person who routinely shows up for themself and others. 

Rainbow tassels were presented to each graduate.

Pride Center graduate intern Rachel Betts and Pride Center Coordinator Nicole Potestivo announce the names of graduating students.

President Elsa Núñez was honored for her work uplifting LGBTQ students on campus.

Students walk the stage and receive a rainbow tassel.

From left to right: Billi Kozak, Nicole Potestivo and Rachel Betts

From left to right: Arden Parzych, Nicole Potestivo, Rachel Betts and Professor Maureen McDonnell

“In moments like these, it reminds me that the efforts you are able to contribute can really make a difference," said Kozak. "I feel that a lot of my peers have been equally involved and we should be celebrating all of us as a community for the efforts we have put into it all together." 

Following graduation, Kozak will be attending the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, pursuing a PhD in microbiology. They hope to remain connected to Eastern’s Pride Center as a part of the AROACE (aromantic and asexual identities) community circle. 

Psychology major Arden Parzych received the Academic Excellence Award for their work to make space for queer and other marginalized individuals. As part of a class project, they learned about the lack of inclusive sex education. Moving beyond the classroom, Parzych hosted an event where students could discuss and learn more about contraceptives, sexuality and safe practices.  

Nicole Potestivo
Pride Center Coordinator Nicole Potestivo congratulates the Class of 2024.

Following graduation, Parzych will be attending Central Connecticut State University, working toward a master’s degree in counseling. 

This year’s Lavender Graduation was the largest yet, honoring 28 students who will be graduating in May. Their friends and families joined them, cheering as the students walked across stage. 

“(The ceremony) was full of celebration and reflection as we came together to honor the Class of 2024,” Potestivo said. “It really is an honor to be able to host such a space for our students and campus community. I left the event feeling a strong sense of connection to all that were there.” 

Lavender Graduation originated in 1995 at the University of Michigan to bring LGBTQ students and their allies together and to recognize their personal and academic achievements on campus. Queer students have and continue to face many challenges while in college. This includes more bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault and mental health struggles in comparison with their non-LGBTQ counterparts, according to a study by the Williams Institute.

In celebrating queer graduates, institutions acknowledge the difficulties faced by queer students and honor the work it takes to walk across the stage. The annual tradition continues at more than 200 colleges and universities across the country. 

Written by Marcus Grant