A UA First: Two Graduate Students Named Point Scholars

University of Arizona doctoral students Ian Ellasante and Mel Ferrara have led and facilitated programs and projects to help build resiliency, stability and visibility within and beyond the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

For their work and continued promise as leaders in local and national communities, Ellasante and Ferrara have been named Point Scholars by the Point Foundation, the largest U.S. higher education scholarship-granting organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and allied students.

As scholars, Ellasante and Ferrara join 20 other students recognized nationwide for being at the forefront of "creating greater acceptance, respect and tolerance in society for all people," according to the Point Foundation.

The scholarship also financially supports students' academic and scholarly work. Although the Point Foundation does not release award amounts for individual students, the organization reports that it has invested more than $18 million in the overall support of its scholars since 2002.

"For many students, the path to attaining a higher education degree is not always straightforward," Jorge Valencia, the Point Foundation's executive director and CEO, said in a statement. "Educational advancement happens in stages — similar to the process of coming out over time as an LGBTQ individual. Point provides multidimensional support to LGBTQ students working toward their educational goals, and we are eager to help community college students who are ready to advance toward a four-year degree."

ll told, the new class of Point Scholars represents several member institutions of the Association of American Universities, including Yale, Columbia and Duke universities. Ellasante and Ferrara are the first UA students to receive the scholarship, first awarded in 2002.

Ellasante, a Calamus Point Scholar, is completing a doctorate in American Indian studies with a minor in gender and women's studies and is an assistant research social scientist for the UA Southwest Institute for Research on Women, or SIROW.

"Those of us engaged in advocacy within marginalized communities know the value of this work. I plan to continue to raise awareness about the disparities confronting LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color, and work alongside those young people to make real change," Ellasante said. "I'm excited for the opportunity to do so beyond the scope of southern Arizona."

Ferrara, a New Jersey native, is pursuing their doctorate in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies. Ferrara, who identifies as a non-binary trans person, grew up in a conservative small town and attended a traditional all-girls Catholic high school. Ferrara became engaged in queer studies and advocacy work while studying at Muhlenberg College in 2011.

"For me, the Point Scholarship is an incredible opportunity not only in terms of financial support, but also in terms of professional development and — perhaps most importantly — community," Ferrara said.

"Even so far, just having met each other, the incoming scholars class is already brainstorming collaborative efforts and discussing different methodologies and approaches to improving the lives of queer folks. Between the leadership training, community engagement opportunities and relationships with those in the Point network, being selected as a Point Scholar undoubtedly will help me develop as an academic, an activist and as a person."

Ellasante, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, moved to Tucson in 2007 and has since made significant contributions to the LGBTQ community, which the Point Foundation is recognizing with its support.

"I appreciate that Point specifically awards scholars who are out as LGBTQ," Ellasante said. "It isn't easy or safe to be out as a queer and trans black person. I feel that a life without shame about who I inherently am is my right and living without shame is an obligation to myself."

In 2008, Ellasante began working with Arizona's first drop-in center for LGBTQ youth, called the Eon Youth Lounge. There, Ellasante served as the Youth and Family Programs manager for Wingspan, which facilitated the youth program.

After Eon, Ellasante took his current position with SIROW, where he has continued efforts working with youth. At SIROW, he coordinated a series of community-based, federally funded programs designed to benefit LGBTQ youth in unstable housing situations, including iTEAM, or Treatment Empowerment for Adolescents on the Move, a partnership project supporting LGBTQA youth and young adults who were homeless or at risk of losing stable housing.

Also with SIROW, Ellasante served as the program and evaluation coordinator for the ANCHOR Project, another partner program established to provide young adults with greater housing stability and employment and support them with school attendance where necessary, while providing other supports.

Ellasante also serves on the boards of the Forty to None project, the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, the city of Tucson's LGBT Commission and Equality Arizona's Transgender Advisory Council.

As a doctoral student, he is investigating community-based participatory research and the potential of stories and storytelling to unify and heal marginalized communities. Also a poet and artist, Ellasante often explores the intersection of his identities as a queer and trans person of African-American and Indigenous descent.

"I am grateful for the financial support and I’m equally glad to be a part of a national network of LGBTQ change-makers," Ellasante said. "The selections process was rigorous. It challenged me to clearly articulate my goals, which has continued to be beneficial as I make plans for my dissertation." 

At Muhlenberg College, Ferrara became deeply involved in the campus' multicultural center, serving in several leadership positions. There, Ferrara co-founded and served as the former co-president of the Muhlenberg Trans Advocacy Coalition, a student organization that has produced numerous institutional changes benefiting trans and gender non-conforming community members.

After Muhlenberg, Ferrara studied in the Netherlands and Morocco, working on independent research on international approaches to intersex health care, with a focus on patient narratives. After graduating in 2015 with a double major in gender and sexuality studies and also philosophy/political thought, Ferrara joined the UA through the University Fellows program. 

While studying gender and women's studies, Ferrara also is studying anthropology. Ferrara's research interests are trans and intersex studies, biopolitics and the medicalization of the body. After the UA, Ferrara intends to serve as a professor and an activist, working toward more ethical health care models rooted in patient agency.  

"As a first-generation, transgender student, I've often felt somewhat out of place in higher education," Ferrara said. "While UA's gender and women's studies department is a space in which I've found wonderful colleagues and mentors with similar experiences, Point is unique in that it brings together queer students from all different disciplines and intended professions."

Story by La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Relations. Original story here.

Published Date: 

08/05/2016 - 12:48pm