Lariisa Stewart – April Student Spotlight

Lariisa Stewart is a senior graduating in August 2020 with a GWS major and a LGBTQ+ Studies certificate. Read Lariisa’s reflections on transferring to UW-Madison, choosing the major, writing a senior thesis, and preparing for graduate programs in Curriculum and Instruction.

When and why did you choose GWS and LGBTQ+ Studies?

I took my first gender studies class during my first year, back when I was majoring inLariisa Stewart - April Student Spotlight English Education (and later Sociology) at UW-Oshkosh. At the time, I considered making it my minor, but didn’t declare anything. When I transferred to UW-Madison, I took Feminist Disability Studies with Professor Ellen Samuels and really fell in love with the discipline. Gender and Women’s Studies felt like home and I quickly declared the major, as well as the LGBTQ+ Studies certificate. This is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

GWS has had a major impact on my academic career, in part by introducing me to Disability Studies and Crip Theory. Between having close family with disability and my own experiences with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) and related conditions, disability has always been a very integral part of my life. Despite this, I never really had language to talk about my experiences. I also felt really isolated from other people, especially once my symptoms became more apparent in early adulthood. Disability Studies gave me a means to articulate my identity and experiences, as well as a sense of belonging within the wider disabled community. In many ways, it has been as healing as it has been intellectually stimulating.

Has your coursework in GWS and LGBTQ+ Studies changed your approach to your involvement (on or off campus) during college? If yes, how?

I don’t think it’s possible to come out of a course in GWS without some sort of change Lariisa Stewart - April Student Spotlightin perspective. Taking GWS and LGBTQ+ Studies courses has introduced me to completely new ways of thinking about the world. From Feminist Theory to Crip of Color Critique, there are countless frameworks under the GWS/LGBTQ+ Studies umbrella that have helped me consider varying points of view and approach problems differently. I am far more aware of different epistemologies and ways in which power manifests in various spaces. I’m also more confident in my ability to problem-solve and educate myself about different social issues and systems of oppression. GWS has allowed me to approach advocacy work in a way that is more inclusive and adaptable to the inevitable messiness of the real world.

GWS has not only given me new ways to approach my work, but also entirely new avenues of involvement. The department offers a number of opportunities to do hands-on work on campus and in the wider community. For instance, I am currently working on a senior thesis with Professor Chris Barcelos; I am looking at ways to improve disability accessibility in GWS courses without relying solely on interventions from the McBurney Disability Center. While engaging in senior thesis research is completely optional, I opted to do it as a chance to really challenge myself to apply what I’ve learned in my studies and possibly make a difference in the academic careers of other disabled and chronically ill students. My coursework helped me identify limits to the current accommodation system and investigate how institutional power and systems of oppression impact disability access in higher education. Before GWS, I don’t think I would be able to recognize these limits, let alone articulate them and brainstorm ways to overcome them. My thesis work has also helped me prepare for graduate school and has made me feel more confident in my ability to do independent research and write longer papers than are typically required in undergraduate education.

How have your GWS and LGBTQ+ Studies courses and experiences shaped your future plans?

My future plans have completely changed since becoming actively involved in GWS and LGBTQ+ Studies. I’ve jumped around a lot between three schools and a number of majors, but GWS has helped me explore my passions and find a sense of purpose. I’m currently planning to continue my academic career by pursuing a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction, with a focus on creating equitable learning spaces for disabled and chronically ill students. GWS gave me space to explore and cultivate my passions for disability justice and equity in education, which I’ll always be thankful for. For the first time ever, I’m completely confident in my vision for the future.