Senior Director of Marketing, Communications and Media Relations
Over the past 16 years working at Winona State University, I’ve watched with pride as generations of students have passed through my orbit.
Whether it was a student team member in the MarComm Office where I work, a student leader I interacted with, or through the multitudes of student stories we’ve told over the years, I’ve felt honored to play even a small part in the exploration, empowerment, and ultimately growth I continually see unfolding all around me.
College seems like a natural time for a young person to engage in acts of self-discovery and redefinition, examining and questioning the many layers of identity placed upon us by birth and circumstance. So I never expected to find myself as an “older person” – in my mid-30s – grappling with my own questions about identity and sense of self, trying to determine which parts of me felt authentic and which parts felt prescribed by society, mass media, and the belief systems under which I was raised. (Better late than never, I guess!)
I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to explore these parts of myself openly and to feel safe doing so – I know not everyone has that luxury.
I also feel fortunate to live in an era in which such exploration is not only permitted but encouraged – I know this is due to the bravery of those who walked the road before me.
Ultimately, I feel fortunate that even if I still don’t know quite who I am, I have time and space to keep figuring it out. I have a community around me that will receive my journey with acceptance and understanding, with curiosity and a willingness to learn, and with a promise that in the world ahead, future generations will be allowed to walk openly and with pride – like I do now.
And maybe, just by being me, I can play a part in inspiring someone else to walk their authentic path — no matter what age they start.
In celebration of Pride Month, the following narratives are from WSU students, alumni, and staff who voluntarily responded to our emails and social posts asking for their stories. Participants shared what they take pride in and when or where on campus they feel their most authentic selves. Answers were lightly edited for clarity.
Jillian Volk ’22
Social Work Major
Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Minor
I take pride in being able to be myself.
It took me about 8 years to be totally okay with myself and who I am. I take pride in being able to express myself how I want and be able to be open/comfortable about my sexuality.
First-year me would never have thought I would be able to tell anyone and everyone about how I identify. I remember coming to WSU hardly wanting to admit to myself or others that I thought I liked girls. But the people I met and classes I took at WSU made me realize there were others like me and made me feel comfortable in my own skin.
As a senior now, I have never been so confident in myself. I’m proud of how far I have came. Eighteen-year-old Jillian would be in awe of Twenty-two-year-old Jillian. She never thought she would be living outside of the closet, totally comfortable identifying as a lesbian.
I feel most comfortable and authentic when I’m in my Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies classes.
Every class I took I was able to express myself freely and was never afraid to speak my truth. I felt comfortable with every classmate and every professor. Especially when I was struggling with trying to figure out my sexuality that was the one place on campus I felt like I could totally be myself without being afraid of others.
I am so thankful to be a part of the WGSS program. It has helped me so much with being comfortable with who I am. Being around people just like you is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Kaylen Vitch ’25
Nursing Major & Spanish Minor
I find myself being really prideful about my attitude towards life.
I try to always stay optimistic and live without regret because I truly believe that everything happens for a reason.
Looking back on everything I’ve accomplished, I am incredibly proud of finding myself.
After coming to college, I had the chance to explore on my own and take time to self-reflect. By doing this, I found comfort in being alone with myself — something that I used to really struggle with.
I also take pride in my friends. I am so proud of everything that I’ve watched the people around me accomplish, and it really motivates me to do my best.
At Winona, there are a lot of really beautiful places to get in touch with yourself.
I especially enjoy Watkins Hall. There is a spot that overlooks the art gallery that is so relaxing, serene, and a perfect spot for reflection and quiet.
I also feel most authentic and “homey” when I’m in the K.E.A.P. Center. I worked at the K.E.A.P. last year and it was wonderful. Everyone is so kind and knowledgeable.
The best days in the K.E.A.P. were when students would play piano, sing, or have their clubs hosted there. I remember one night when there was a Bangladeshi Clay Pottery event with Oragami making — it felt so calming and grounding.
Lastly, the K.E.A.P. is a really great resource where you can have conversations about important educational topics. It feels so good to be able to talk in a space without judgment or discrimination. I even had the privilege of helping Tyler Treptow-Bowman add new queer flags to the space, with updated definition cards, for more representation. This helped me feel like I could better express who I am through the space around me.
Di Tapia ’21
Social Work & Spanish Double Major
I take pride in being a Queer Latina Woman because it’s who I am. I was born this way and there’s nothing that I would do to change it.
Being a queer Latina has given me so many opportunities and presented a lot of amazing people who are like me.
I feel empowered having the ability to express myself and to be the reason why someone feels included, welcomed, valued, listened to, supported and loved.
I felt my most authentic self at the KEAP center on campus. It has always been a safe place for me. Everyone is so accepting and caring.
The KEAP center has always felt like a place of belonging. I didn’t have to hide who I am as a person. Through this, I have met a lot of really amazing people.
Growing up I always feared being rejected due to my sexuality. I’m happy to say that the KEAP center is a safe place for those who are first generation, people of color, gay etc.