10 Questions With Center For Sexual & Gender Diversity Director Sonya Wilmoth
Sonya Wilmoth was recently named the new director of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity after working for the center since 2013. In her new role, she’s working to grow the educational program to promote inclusivity around Penn State’s campus.
We sat down with Wilmoth to talk about her new role and the importance of advocating for gender and sexual diversity and inclusion.
Onward State: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sonya Wilmoth: I am a native Marylander who can pick a steamed blue crab clean. I graduated from La Salle University in 1988 and went on to West Chester University to get my first master’s in sports and athletic administration. I was a scholarship softball player at La Salle and at West Chester had a graduate assistantship in the athletic department. I ended up applying for the vacant head softball coaching position and served in that role for seven years.
I moved to Jacksonville, Florida to be the first full-time head softball coach at the University of North Florida. I was there for 12 seasons before retiring from coaching. I served as an adjunct professor at UNF and Jacksonville University before leaving Jacksonville for San Antonio, Texas. My partner (now ex) got a job there, and we moved there in 2011. I came to State College, again following her career, in 2013 and applied for the assistant director position at the then-LGBTA Student Resource Center.
OS: Why did you decide to apply for the director for the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity position?
SW: Well, having spent so much time as the assistant director and serving as interim director twice, I felt like I had been involved in all aspects of the center and was ready to take on the role. I have made so many partnerships and connections across campus and have experienced all of the Penn State systems. I love Penn State, the community, and being back in the northeast.
I learned so much from former directors Allison Subasic and Brian Patchcoski. Both gave me the tools and confidence I needed to take on the role. Most importantly, I was a college student navigating the coming out process and had no one to turn to. I really feel the need to support and connect to students who are needing resources and support. College is such an important time in a student’s life and the added stressors that diverse sexualities and genders bring to that can be overwhelming. I want to help students navigate those times and help them thrive at Penn State.
OS: How and when did you develop an interest in advocating for sexual and gender diversity and inclusion?
SW: I think the last portion of the previous question would answer this. As a softball coach, I watched as many of my student-athletes struggled in their coming-out process while I remained closeted for fear of losing my job. I feel a tremendous amount of regret for not being more transparent and open about my own journey that may have been helpful for them to see.
OS: Why did you decide to make the switch from working in athletics at previous universities to working in advocacy for gender and sexual diversity at Penn State?
SW: Well, I think in any role on a college campus you advocate for students, it just takes on different forms. See the answer to #3. I have always been drawn to making a difference in student’s lives.
OS: What does your role as the new director for the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity entail?
SW: Oversight of the day-to-day operations of the center and staff, budget oversight, support and advocacy of students, and represent the center and students who hold diverse sexualities and genders across campus
OS: What have been your previous positions with the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity? How do you think they’re connected and how do you think they differ from each other?
SW: As the assistant, I really was involved in a lot of the programming. I was tasked with collaborations in programming and creating meaningful connections across campus. I was also responsible for the faculty, staff, and graduate student educational programming. We are all really involved with all of the day-to-day support of students. I think that the transparency that Brian Patchcoski created allowed all of us to really see and be a part of all of what the center does. It provided a comfort level in moving into the director role.
OS: How do you think Penn State can improve in making its campus more inclusive and equitable for students and faculty?
SW: Education. The more that we can educate students, faculty, and staff about diverse sexualities and genders, the more we can work to make change. In our current educational sessions, we hear a lot of people saying they want to do more, and that is very promising.
OS: In what ways can Penn State students help to create change on campus?
SW: I believe that if students who are passionate and who really want to see change come together for a common purpose, change can happen. Nobody knows more about the student experience on campus than our students. We need to empower them to lead the way.
OS: What changes or ideas do you have that would shape the future of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity?
SW: One of the areas that I think we can continue to grow is our educational program — both faculty, staff, and graduate students as well as undergraduate peer education. True collaboration with units, offices, entities across campus are also goals that I have for moving the work forward. Our students navigate campus with all of their identities, and as a university, we have an obligation to create spaces where they can bring their whole selves.
OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur which would you want to be and why?
SW: Oh, I have been watching Dino Hunters on Discovery. I think I would choose the triceratops. It has been characterized as having a gentle disposition but has a fearsome look. I can relate sometimes.
Some of these responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
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