Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade: Why I Have Become Indebted to My WGSS Education

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.[1] 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.


[1] 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.


Congratulations, WGSS 2020 Graduates: We are so proud of you!

Professor Nancy Hiemstra congratulates the WGSS 2020 graduates on their achievement and reads from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.

Congrats WST Majors & Minor! Woohoo!

You are a truly amazing group of students, for how hard you have worked, challenges that you have faced, and all that you have accomplished. Thank you for diving into your courses in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, and giving so much of yourselves to your studies. Thank you for the knowledge, ideas, and brilliant questions you have shared in class. While it is really disappointing that we are not able to celebrate your graduation together in person right now, don’t let that lessen your feelings of pride for all you have done, joy that you’re finally at the finish line, or excitement and curiosity about the future. One thing that I think the present moment has made blatantly clear is how incredibly important YOU are to our collective future. As the unequal impacts of this pandemic become more and more apparent, the critical theories, concepts, and tools you have developed through your Women’s and Gender Studies majors and minors are desperately needed now more than ever. As you carve out your path going forward, as you create your own adventures, know that you have within you the ability to really see how power works, and to speak truth to power. We are so proud of you. Please stay in touch, we will be thinking of you.

Good luck! 

Vivien Hartog Graduate Student Teaching Award: Annu Daftuar, Val Moyer, & Melis Umut

We are very pleased to announce the 2020 recipients of the Vivien Hartog Graduate Student Teaching Award: Annu Daftuar, Val Moyer, and Melis Umut.

Congratulations to Annu, Val, and Melis! 

First, we want to tell you a bit about this award and Vivien Hartog. Then, the advisors of the three graduate students will present this year’s winners.

This award is named in honor of Vivien Hartog, a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies graduate certificate student who died before she could complete her Ph.D. in Sociology. It goes to the graduate student instructor we think most exemplifies Vivien’s lifelong commitments to activism, teaching, and learning. Here’s a description of Vivien written by her family that captures something of the kind of person we are honoring with this award:

“In Vivien Hartog’s 55 years, she went through more identities than most could imagine. An incomplete list would include: rebellious daughter; actress in training; young mother, wife (3 times); scientologist; scourge of scientology; business woman; domestic help in a hotel; undergraduate; radical feminist and lesbian; graduate student in sociology and women’s studies. At every point she both threw herself into her new identity and at the same time, remained herself. And one way that she always remained herself was in her commitment to social justice and to human rights. She remade herself regularly, but she always understood her remaking as struggles on a larger stage. Particularly in her last decade, she saw her life through the lens of an international women’s movement.”

Professor Nancy Hiemstra on Annu Daftuar: 

I am thrilled to present the Vivien Hartog Graduate Student Teaching Award to Annu Daftuar, who truly exemplifies Vivien Hartog’s lifelong commitments to social justice, activism, teaching, and learning.

Since beginning her doctoral studies in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in 2016, Annu has excelled at teaching a range of courses, first as a Teaching Assistant and now as a solo instructor. As a woman of color originally from the Global South, she serves as an inspiring role model and mentor to all of her students. She consistently designs and teaches her courses with great care and thought, endeavoring to create a feminist classroom space, and aiming to make students’ learning experience different, accessible, and transformative. In addition to introductory courses, Annu has drawn on her own expertise and interests to provide outstanding learning experiences for her students. For example, in “The Global Politics of Reproduction,” Annu built on her dissertation research on the transnational surrogacy industry in India. Looking through student evaluation comments for this class, I was impressed by the rave reviews, including this one: “This has been one of my favorite courses at Stony Brook…Annu is such a badass professor and it was an honor to be her student.”

Now it is my pleasure to present the honor of this award to Annu. Congratulations!

Professor Lisa Diedrich on Val Moyer:

I am delighted to tell you about Valerie Moyer, one of the winners of the 2020 Vivien Hartog Graduate Student Teaching Award. Like Vivien Hartog, Val’s research, teaching, and on- and off-campus activism start from a commitment to social justice and inclusion. 

Val’s dissertation, “Muscularity, Hormones, and Other ‘Threats’ to Women’s Sports,” is timely and important. Using track and field as a case study, she investigates the question: What is a “woman athlete”? She discusses the many processes of becoming a woman athlete, in terms of building physical capacity at the micro-level of muscles and molecules through training and fitness, as well as at the macro-level through social and political advocacy and activism to challenge assumptions about femininity and to open up opportunities for women and girls to participate and compete in sports across the world. Her work shows a generalized anxiety about the possibility of “unfair advantage” that circulates around women athletes. This anxiety also operates across multiple scales—at the level of individual bodies, between bodies in competition, and between nations in international sporting organizations and competitions. In “Threatening the Gender Hierarchy in Women’s Sport,” a blog post for Nursing Clio, Val discusses recent requirements that Caster Semenya suppress her testosterone levels in order to allow her to continue to run competitively, and she argues that these are part of a longer history of experiments in sex testing in sports that have sought to exclude some women, especially black and brown women, from competing. She points out the important historical fact “that women with higher testosterone have been a part of women’s sports all along.”

Val has excelled at Stony Brook not only academically but also as a teacher and departmental and campus leader. She has received stellar reviews as a teaching assistant and instructor for a variety of classes, including Histories of Feminism, Intermediate Writing, and Unfair Advantage: The Politics of Track and Field. To use a sports metaphor (!), Val is a consummate team player. In her second year in the program, Val was chosen by her fellow graduate students to be the graduate representative in the department. By all accounts, she was a great success in this position, garnering the admiration of graduate students and faculty alike. She also served as one of the organizers of the WGSS graduate student conference “Spaces of Dissent” and as the department mobilizer for the Graduate Student Employee Union at a time when the GSEU has actively campaigned to eliminate graduate student fees. This work continues.

Congratulations, Val!

Professor Victoria Hesford on Melis Umut:

It gives me great pleasure to present the Vivien Hartog Outstanding Graduate Instructor Award to Melis Umut! Like Vivien Hartog, in whose memory this award is named, Melis has an adventurous spirit. She has travelled far—from Istanbul, Turkey, to Hungary, the UK, and the US—all in pursuit of her education in feminist media and film studies. Melis’s travels have also taken her across disciplinary borders—she has pursued graduate degrees in visual culture, cultural studies, and gender studies, and she has read widely in feminist film and media studies, psychoanalysis, disability studies, and porn studies. Melis is a true intellectual, someone who is excited by ideas and eager to learn. While working on her dissertation, “Erotic Visuality and Popular Culture in a Conservative Society: 1970s Turkish Erotic Melodramas and the Muslim Sexual Imagination,” Melis continued to sit in on graduate seminars (including most recently, Patricia Clough’s seminar on “The Political Unconscious” at NYU), and attend public lectures and talks. Before the lockdown put an end to travel and conferences, Melis was writing a paper, based on a dissertation chapter, for SCMS—the Society for Cinema and Media Studies—the premier conference in her field. Melis loves living in New York because of the cultural and intellectual experiences it offers—it is a city that appeals to her sense of adventure.

Melis’ wide-ranging intellectual curiosity also informs her teaching. She has taught classes at the introductory level for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as topics classes in film and on transnational and non-normative sexualities. For her class on non-normative sexualities, Melis introduced students to intersectional analyses of sexuality and disability as well as performance art and sex work. It is through this kind of formal and conceptual experimentation that Melis presents her students with new ways to think about sex, visual culture, and gender. And I know from my observations of her teaching, that Melis loves to challenge her students by showing them difficult or provocative performance and visual art. Melis encourages her students to see things differently by introducing them to a way of looking not determined by the commodified forms of visual culture we are immersed in in our daily lives. In this sense, Melis is a classroom activist in the best tradition of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Congratulations Melis!

Well wishes from WGSS faculty to the WGSS class of 2020

Several WGSS faculty have created celebratory messages to the WGSS class of 2020 for the #WGSSGraduation2020 blog. Here are contributions from Professors Victoria Hesford, Liz Montegary, and Francesca Spedalieri. Enjoy!

Professor Hesford reads Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”


Professor Montegary shares some messages for the “graduated feminists!”

And Professor Spedalieri shares this contribution:

Greetings and celebrations, WGSS graduates!
In this particular space-time vortex we find ourselves in, I wanted to share the words of Gwendolyn Brooks — a Pulitzer Prize winner, iconic 20th-century poet, author, and teacher. [A dear friend and colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Wellman, introduced me to this quote.]
In an interview in 1973, Brooks was asked “if poems arrived to her complete.”
This is what Brooks said:
Image Description: A wide-shot photo of the Wang Center from the entrance to the Zuccaire Gallery at the Staller Center. It is a sunny day despite the cotton-candy clouds that punctuate the sky. Overlaid on the image in black type are Gwendolyn Brooks’ words. They read:
“A poem rarely comes whole and completely dressed. As a rule, it comes in bits and pieces. You get an impression of something—you feel something, you anticipate something, and you begin, feebly, to put these impressions and feelings and anticipation or rememberings into those things which seem so handleable—words.
And you flail and you falter and you shift and you shake, and finally, you come forth with the first draft. Then, if you’re myself and if you’re like many of the other poets that I know, you revise, and you revise. And often the finished product is nothing like your first draft. Sometimes it is.”
For me, Brooks’ words about poetry seem to reflect the journey of and beyond college. And, in the present moment, they also resonate loudly with hope.
So here is to you, your journeys, and those who have and will support you along the way.

Congratulations, Class of 2020!

Terry Alexander Award in WGSS: Nic Grima

Every year an undergraduate receives the Terry Alexander Award, honoring the mother of Courtney Alexander, a Women’s Studies major who graduated in 2006. Terry was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1982, and she worked to raise awareness about the disease until her death in 2006. This award is given annually to a graduating major in Women’s and Gender Studies, who has completed the Gender, Sexuality, and Public Health track, and is interested in a career in health care and/or health advocacy.

Photo on left is of Terry Alexander and on right is Isha Joshi, winner of the Terry Alexander Award in 2019, with Courtney Alexander.

Professor Nancy Hiemstra presents the 2020 Terry Alexander Award:

This year, we are delighted to present the Terry Alexander Award to Nic Grima. Nic is graduating this spring with a BA in WST, having completed the Gender, Sexuality, and Public Health track as well as a Chemistry minor.

I had the great pleasure of having Nic as a student in two classes, and in both Nic really distinguished themself for insightful, thoughtful contributions to the class. All instructors in our department who had Nic in class had glowing remarks about them. As part of their GSPH track, Nic completed an internship with Stony Brook’s LGBTQ Services in 2017.

For the research seminar in WGSS, they wrote an excellent and really important paper entitled “Transitioning Care: Structurally Competent Trans* and Gender Nonconforming Healthcare in a University Setting.” Nic presented this work at URECA. Nic has been in communication with folks at SBU medicine about implementing some of this research into ways to improve care for transgender and gender nonconforming people at SBU. After graduation, Nic plans to pursue further education and work in the health professions, with special interest in health care for trans and gender nonconforming individuals.

Congratulations, Nic, we are proud of you!

Jeanette Blanchette, WGSS BA ’20: I believe voices like mine need to be heard & represented

Jeanette Blanchette offers moving words about her experience as a Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies minor and about her plans for the future:

During my time at WGSS, I was fortunate to learn from a vast array of intelligent and passionate professors who truly loved their craft. I was able to learn more about the diverse communities around me and grow as a unique individual in this world. I am also very grateful to my peers who always created a diverse, fun, and comfortable learning environment where we all could discuss our thoughts freely. Words can never truly express the amount of knowledge and perspective that I have gained throughout my time as a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies minor. I will never forget how I started with WST 103 to become a minor and discuss my research on body politics in WST 408. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude, my goals for the future are to obtain a MA/Ph.D. in either political science or international relations. I hope to become either a foreign affairs or public policy analyst and pursue a career in public service. I believe voices like mine need to be heard and represented. That being said, I wish my fellow seniors all the best with their future endeavors. Congratulations to the Class of 2020!

Jeanette Blanchette, ’20.

WGSS Academic Excellence Award: Jessica Tom and Jeanette Blanchette

The WGSS Award for Academic Excellence goes to both WGSS major, Jessica Tom, and WGSS minor, Jeanette Blanchette.

Professor Ritch Calvin presents the award to Jessica Tom:

I am very happy to announce that Jessica Tom has been awarded the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Award for Academic Excellence. Jessica is a double major in Biology and WGSS. As she has noted in class, the two majors, and the classes for each major, really draw on and activate different ways of thinking.

I have just completed reading her final essay for WST 305. In this class, we have focused on questions of epistemology and language. The assignment asked students to apply those concepts to an analysis of a contemporary, real-world issue. Being the dual major that she is, Jessica focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways we have talked about it, and the ways in which language has shaped our response to it.

In another class, (WST 398 with Nancy Hiemstra), Jessica also addressed COVID-19 via a media presentation. As Prof. Hiemstra writes, “For her final project, she put together an original media piece: a photo essay on the impacts of COVID-19 shut-downs and xenophobia on restaurant businesses and undocumented immigrant workers in Manhattan’s Chinatown. She really went above and beyond, taking her own photos to use and writing eloquent, powerful text to accompany them.”

It is rewarding to see that Jessica is using the information and insight from her classes to address real-world issues.

Congratulations to Jessica on her hard work and her academic success.

Professor Nancy Hiemstra presents the award to Jeanette Blanchette:

It is an honor to present this departmental Academic Excellence Award to Jeanette Blanchette, a major in Political Science and minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. Jeanette’s excellence in academics is immediately evident in the fact that she is graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a GPA of 4.00 from Stony Brook’s Honors College. She also exemplifies excellence in her desire to always learn deeply and challenge herself.

I first met Jeanette in 2016 in my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course. While it was a lecture course, Jeannette immediately stood out as an especially perceptive and curious student. She was again my student in an upper-level class in 2017, and again excelled. In both classes, she frequently spoke up to make thoughtful comments and consistently turned in outstanding work. Jeanette also demonstrated great skill in independent research and analysis as a research assistant for me over the course of three semesters.

Jeanette similarly impressed other instructors in our department. As Professor Liz Montegary noted, “her work ethic is unmatched, and the quality of her writing is top-notch.” For her WST research seminar project, Jeanette wrote a paper titled “Body Politics: Anti-Abortion Legislation Throughout the Bible Belt.” Jeanette plans to continue on to graduate school in Political Science after graduation, and we look forward to seeing the paths she carves for herself.


A message of feminist solidarity to the WGSS class of 2020 from doctoral students Annu Daftuar & Val Moyer

We, Annu Daftuar and Val Moyer, would like to congratulate the WGSS class of 2020!

We started our PhD at Stony Brook in 2016, at the same time as these graduating seniors, so we have been with this group as TAs and instructors throughout their undergraduate career. These quotes resonate deeply with our own feminist worldviews and we wanted to share them with the amazing graduating cohorts as a sign of our feminist solidarity. Congratulations!

Image description: Two handwritten quotes on bright, floral backgrounds. One reads: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and be eaten alive” by Audre Lorde. The other is: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.'” by Toni Morrison. 

WGSS Activism & Academic Excellence Award: Zach Davidson


We will be using this space to present the 2020 WGSS Awards and acknowledge the many accomplishments of our graduating majors and minors.

The first award is for WGSS Activism and Academic Excellence presented by Professor Liz Montegary to Zach Davidson.

It is my honor to introduce Zachary Davidson as the winner of this year’s WGSS Activism and Academic Excellence Award. Zach is graduating this spring with a B.A. in Biology and a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and is planning to apply to medical school this coming fall.

Zach’s decision to make WGSS a central component of his pre-med education reflects his commitment to bringing a critical cultural lens to the work of medical care. As an interdisciplinary thinker, Zach always considers the larger contexts surrounding the situations he encounters—whether hypothetical scenarios presented in the classroom or actual incidents occurring in his professional work life. This has most certainly been true during his time as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with the Stony Brook Volunteer Ambulance Corps (SBVAC). Zach began volunteering as an EMT shortly after arriving on campus and has been a vital member of SBVAC for the past four years, assisting with the training of new EMTs and ambulance drivers and serving as the agency’s Treasurer during the 2018-19 academic year.

This past fall, Zach developed a project for the WGSS Senior Research Seminar that was inspired by his on-the-ground experiences as an EMT with SBVAC. He identified a gap in the literature and training materials available for emergency care providers serving undergraduate students. Given the ubiquity of sexual assault on college campuses, EMTs working in these settings often encounter patients who have past experiences with sexual violence (or who have recently survived some form of assault). What Zach wanted to know was what steps EMTs could take to reduce the risk of re-traumatizing survivors needing immediate care or lifesaving assistance. His senior research project resulted in a well-researched and terrifically written paper on best practices for treating sexual assault survivors in pre-hospital settings. But, even more excitingly, Zach worked with his SBVAC supervisors to develop training protocols for teaching his fellow EMTs about these standards of care. This initiative is an excellent reminder of the creative and compassionate innovations that become possible when healthcare professionals are trained in histories of gender and sexual inequities and feminist theories of carework and emotional labor.

Through his advocacy work and community service, Zach brought new perspectives – and new training initiatives – to the Stony Brook Volunteer Ambulance Corps. His distinctly feminist dedication to our campus will surely leave a lasting effect. Congratulations, Zach! On behalf of the entire WGSS department, I wish you the best of luck as you take the next steps on your medical career path!