Honoring history in the making: Annual Burnside Watstein Awards celebrate those who strive for equality

Wanda S. Mitchell, Ed.D., vice president for inclusive excellence; Austin Higgs, Office of Planni...
Wanda S. Mitchell, Ed.D., vice president for inclusive excellence; Austin Higgs, Office of Planning and Decision Support, accepting an award on behalf of Shan Davis; Jacob Jaminet, School of Engineering student; R. Dale Smith, coordinator of undergraduate advising in the Department of English; Paris Prince, special assistant of LGBTQ initiatives; Gail Hackett, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Jacob Jaminet chose Virginia Commonwealth University for its reputation in research, but also for its commitment to diversity. The latter was especially important, because, at the time, Jaminet had yet to come out and was seeking a safe, inclusive environment. However, when he did come out — less than a year ago — he came out running, becoming an advocate for the LGBTQ community.

Tuesday, Jaminet was honored as the student recipient of the 10th annual Burnside Watstein Award, which rewards the efforts and accomplishments of those influencing VCU’s LGBTQ staff, faculty, students and the community.

“I’m just gonna be me … I’m nerdy, I’m a scientist and I’m gay,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to be and all I can be.”

Jaminet joined the student organization oSTEM — Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — becoming president of the fledgling group this semester.

“I volunteered to be president because I was very passionate about this project, being an engineering student in the sciences as well as gay,” Jaminet said. “This fall, we really started to recruit members and going out to events such as the SOVO Fair and the Broad Street Mile. We’re really just advocating for the LGBTQIA in the sciences.”

STEM … is supposed to be very logical and rigid and very by-the-books, so why does it matter who you are or where you come from, it’s all about the science.

Other student organizations exist within engineering, such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers, but it’s unusual to have a group based on sexual identity among science students.

“STEM … is supposed to be very logical and rigid and very by-the-books, so why does it matter who you are or where you come from, it’s all about the science,” Jaminet said. “Science in itself tends to ignore where you come from because it’s all about results. … Really supporting people, being like, ‘Yes, you can be who you are, and be a good scientist,’ is where we’re trying to come from.”

The Burnside Watstein Award was created by Equality VCU at a time when contributions of the LGBTQ community and its allies often went unrecognized. The award — which now honors what the university considers history in the making — is named for Sarah Watstein and Christopher Burnside, two former co-chairs of Equality VCU who made great contributions to VCU’s inclusivity.

Jaminet is in good company. His fellow recipients are R. Dale Smith, coordinator of undergraduate advising in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences who teaches LGBTQ literature, and community member Shan Davis, who coordinates the organization Black Action Now.

Nominees for the awards were Jessica Rathbun-Cook (ROSMY), George Kelly (University Student Commons and Activities), Justin Ayars (Richmond Business Alliance), Carol M. Schall, Ph.D. (School of Education) and Jenilee Stanley-Shanks (School of Engineering).

 

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The Burnside Watstein Awards.
Click to view slideshow. The Burnside Watstein Awards.