This post is from Elizabeth Varghese, who graduated in May with BA in WGSS and a BS in Biology. Elizabeth received a Provost’s Award for Academic Excellence and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She will be an MD/MPH candidate at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook in the fall.
I started my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) degree by accident. I got locked out of a course I needed for my then journalism minor, and stumbled upon Professor Tiso’s WST 102 class in the middle of a panicked and groggy 8:01 a.m. search for anything that would fulfill a general education requirement. Relieved to have simply found a class that seemed easy to balance on top of what would eventually prove to be a difficult semester for pre-meds, I didn’t think much of an introductory WGSS course.
At the time, I also never saw science as anything less than objective. Like most people, I took everything in textbooks and journals at face-value, because why wouldn’t I? We all know how difficult it is to get something published, and textbooks are usually the pedestal on which our professors build their classes – of course these authors are assumed to be accurate.
In one of my first WST 102 classes three years ago, I began to realize how wrong I was. Our most fundamental middle school biology classes include a unit on reproduction—the sperm and the egg. Upon further analysis of the language used in different textbooks, the contrast in how the male reproductive system was described vs. the female was stunning. The production of a million sperm cells a day is apparently astonishing, while ovulation is a slow, degenerative process. The seminiferous tubules span a remarkable one-third of a mile when uncoiled, and menstruation is just the wasting away of the endometrium. Fast forward to senior year, and I found myself completing my senior thesis on forced sterilization in the minority Roma population of Czechoslovakia—an appalling practice that the government portrayed as for the good of public health.
The deceptively objective world of science is fully shaped by the perspectives of those who are privileged enough to communicate it. I turned to medicine as a career when I was too young and terrified and likely hated myself a little too much to want to do anything else. WST 102 was the first step in realizing the importance of my voice in the field, as well as the privilege of being able to lift up others.
I began writing this as a small way to thank the incredible professors of Stony Brook University’s WGSS department for their profound impact on my undergraduate career. In light of the horrific deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and particularly Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, it has become something more.
Education is paramount in dismantling anti-blackness, understanding the histories and oppression of different minorities, and achieving racial justice. WGSS programs such as Stony Brook’s have been providing spaces to do just that for years. Throughout college, I have learned from professors who actively de-center whiteness from their curriculums, teach history and theory from the lens of different sexualities, and uplift the disabled. They have been doing the work that is now so incredibly essential for this country to move forward (and at a state university, no less).
Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade are largely missing from the national outrage and conversations around black lives, but I can assure you that they are not missing in the outrage and conversations of my professors and classmates. They are not missing because we discuss the race, gender, and sexuality hierarchy that exists and try to combat it. They are not missing because we study Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins and learn how to use black feminist thought to think critically about the world. But it is far from enough.
WGSS programs, as well as other ethnic studies programs, have long had reputations of being “snowflake” and expendable in undergraduate education. If the recent onslaught of pleas to educate those around us to literally stop black lives from being murdered has proved anything, it is the exact opposite. Students of these programs are now and always have been in unique positions to propel necessary radical change in governance and thought, and perhaps more tangibly, to ensure that people such as Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade are never forgotten and see justice.
I shouldn’t have started my WGSS journey by accident. I should have known full well then as I do now the necessity and impact of a course such as WST 102. The histories, theories, and lessons learned in WGSS and ethnic studies programs will continue to pervade every sphere of our existence until true change is made. The immense anger and pain emerging now is a sign that that fact has not been understood. Universities across the country now have the responsibility of making sure that it is.
 Emily Martin. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male- Female Roles.” Signs 16, no. 3 (1991): 485–501.