Exploring Existence Through Education

Submitted on February 8, 2021

By Elizabeth Labiner

Sy Simms has done a bit of everything: theater, sports, scholarship in multiple fields, mentoring, and more. Their wide range of experiences is intentional, Simms explains, as part of a conscious exploration of themselves and their identity. Early on, they explored life through literature and drama, recalling, “I’ve always been a pretty avid reader and found new worlds in books, plays, and graphic novels. I would often  convince my siblings and friends to act out scenes from books or do dramatic retellings for my parents.” Their childhood hobbies made it no surprise to anyone in their family when they eventually became a theater major. Simms continues, “One of the things that I’ve always loved about theatre is that the stories told on stage or on film were often directly related to current events of the time, and so to look at the ways that history and art can collide to tell us about human existence is a beautiful thing to explore.” 

Simms earned their BA from Pitzer College in Theatre, though they also continued engaging in a number of academic and extracurricular pursuits during their undergraduate career. Simms says,

I did a bit of everything while I was in school: ran for hall council, was part of the Queer Mentoring program, was an orientation co-leader, a resident advisor, and I played rugby for three years. While it seems like I was a bit stretched, it was the first time in my life I got to have a real say not just in what I did, but also how I was going to do it.

Playing rugby and being a queer mentor gave them space to come to terms with their own queer identity, as well as to build a community of folks who shared similar experiences in terms of the struggles they faced and the areas in which they found joy. Like many college campuses, Pitzer needed to improve in its engagement and support of queer and trans communities, as well as students of color,  Simms notes, but their network helped them thrive. 

After their undergraduate work, Simms made the decision to continue on to more advanced degrees, because they felt graduate degrees would better position them to help people and create institutional changes. They went on to earn a Master of Education in Social Justice Education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, then served as the Trans Education Specialist in the Lionel Cantu Queer Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where they were responsible for overseeing the LGBTQIA+Peer education program and supporting gender expansive policies, resources, and awareness across campus. Each new academic and professional chapter led naturally to the next: 

There came a point during the various roles that I had on college campuses over the last eight years during which I was integrating theory into practice, and then constantly reevaluating whether that practice was going to be the best way I could support queer and trans students. Each graduate degree I pursued was and is a chance to evaluate and create different possibilities on how I was going to be best suited for the work I continue to do.

Simms chose the University of Arizona for their doctoral work in part for the holistic approach that it offered. They had known of the working being done by Dr. Z Nicolazzo for several years prior to applying to doctoral programs, and when Simms reached out to her and mentioned that they were interested in pursuing a doctorate, she encouraged them to consider the program at UArizona. Simms found that the Higher Education program provided more choices in both fields and approaches of study. The faculty was also a strong draw, Simms says: “I could do scholarship alongside faculty members presently doing research and contributing to cutting edge and critical scholarship in education, particularly as it relates to equity and justice.”  Beyond that, though, they felt respected and encouraged in their identity as a person and as a scholar. Simms reflects, “At the end of the day, getting to do scholarship that centers the needs of trans people of color, without having to fight my advisor or department about my very existence, made the decision to say yes to UA an easy choice.”

In their research, Simms is primarily interested in equity and justice work in higher education, and specifically in how it gets taken up and by whom: 

Many of my projects in the field have a focus around the needs of queer and trans people of color within insitutions of higher education. Most recently my advisor and I, along with another colleague of ours, finished a study and manuscript that examines trans students' use and participation in digital spaces called Digital Me. None of us anticipated the ways that digital spaces and online platforms would play such an important role in education or in human life, but it was so powerful to be working on such a powerful and timely project.

Looking ahead toward their dissertation, they plan to study how higher education and student affairs practitioners engage in diversity work and if their work aligns with institutional rhetoric. Simms explains, “I think colleges and universities have gotten to a point where ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are keywords that can be found frequently on college campuses, in mission statements, or in program goals, without questioning what those words mean to the people in the institution.” All too often, they say, there’s a lack of action to make substantial shifts, and many activists note that when there is action, it may still center the status quo. Simms sees hope in the new leadership emerging in education -- leaders they hope will push for equity and justice in a new system or institution. 

Simms is eager to be part of this change, both now and in their future career:

I would love to stay in higher education and would be happy as a faculty member teaching and doing research alongside the next generation of higher education and student affairs professionals, but I also think that going back into practitioner and administrative work would allow me to put into practice some of the theories that I’m coming to wrestle with. On a broader level, I would like to contribute to a more loving environment as it relates to academia. I think there is such a history of erasure and violence reproduced or caused by institutions, and I hope that my work can contribute to not only the repair of that harm, but also a re-envisioning of what education means and how we do it.

As the work to achieve social, political, and economic equity continues, it’s exciting to know that Simms is going to be part of it, regardless of the specific path they choose.