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Davis, California

Monday, February 26, 2024

New exhibition at the International Center captures experiences of LGBTQIA+ international graduate students

“Alienation and Liminality” is an interactive installation of visual collages that disseminates qualitative research conducted by the Queer Trans Lab at UC Davis


By INDRANIL BASU — features@theaggie.org


The interactive exhibition “Alienation and Liminality: An Installation on International LGBTQIA+ Graduate Student Experiences on Campus” is currently open for viewing at the International Center. The Queer Trans Lab (QT Lab), a UC Davis research group and the exhibition’s curator, was able to plan and install the project after becoming the inaugural recipient of the 2022 Global Aggies Award for LGBTQIA+ Rights.

Situated in the left wing of the lobby of the International Center, the installation consists of a large three-sided panel introducing the exhibition and ending with the prompt, “What are some experiences of alienation and/or liberation that the installation brings up for you?” The exhibition “connects the rights of LGBTQIA+ peoples globally and the needs and experiences of international LGBTQIA+ students here at UC Davis,” according to the panel. 

People engaging with the installation can write their responses and pin them on the other sides of the panel, as well as read and reflect on the experiences of others. Collages handmade by students at various workshops conducted by QT Lab as part of their grant work are displayed. The QT Lab team put together a digital collage of the handmade work as a central panel. The exhibition has QR codes that link to alt-text image descriptions for accessibility. 

The installation was inspired by the design styles of UC Davis professors Jiayi Young and Tim McNeil, according to Iris Xie, a recent graduate from the master’s in fine arts in design program at UC Davis

“Professor Jiayi Young has an interdisciplinary and free approach to her installations and design work that helped me feel supported and confident in my own skillset regarding working on the installation,” Xie said via email. “Professor Tim McNeil was really kind in advising and supporting us on the exhibition design component and lending us his prompt structure from one of his classes to use, as a way to show the unique nature of doing an exhibition in a non-traditional space like the lobby of the International Center.”

Xie applied their qualitative research background to design and co-create the exhibition with Santhoshi Ramanathan, a fourth-year design major, as a dissemination strategy for the research project of QT Lab.

QT Lab was formed in 2020 when the Chancellor’s Committee on LGBTQIA Issues approached the LGBTQIA Resource Center about doing a needs and assets assessment of queer and trans graduate students and staff on campus. The lab later formed collaborations with various organizations such as the Women’s Resource and Retention Center and later, Global Affairs.

The team developed questions and interviewed about 33 LGBTQIA+ graduate students, professional students and staff at UC Davis for a qualitative analysis of their experiences and what improvements can be made to policy and funding at UC Davis.

Kait Murray, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in science and agricultural education and the graduate research scholar at the Resource Center, describes the goal of QT Lab’s research project. 

“[The goal is] to create change at UC Davis, wherein the most marginalized within our LGBTQIA+ communities are the most resourced and most celebrated and the most central in our funding, in our work in everything that we’re doing,” Murray said.

The Lab’s goal also focuses on finding existing gaps and opportunities to improve the experience of queer and trans students on campus.

“We have these principles of community, we have all these ideals about diversity and inclusion, but we know that oftentimes, the institution falls short of these commitments,” Murray said. “And so […] our goal with our research is to make clear these opportunities for where we can be investing in the things that are already working. For example, we know that for most queer and trans graduate students, most of their social, academic and navigational support comes from peer networks. It’s not coming from the university. […] How can we be investing financial resources in the things that we know that are already happening that are really working well, as well as how we can be opening up new streams of funding to create things that don’t yet exist?”

QT Lab creates a very trauma-informed and caring environment for the work they do, prioritizing intersectionality, representation, accessibility and self-care for the community of researchers as well as participants. The Lab has also had many side projects directed by members according to their own interests in similar areas of research, such as a collaboration with VN CARES by one of their research assistants. Once the Global Aggies Award for LGBTQIA+ Rights was announced, the Lab had the opportunity to focus on specific data for international students, and launched their workshop series and exhibition. 

Ramanathan, the only undergraduate student who is a current research assistant at QT Lab, facilitated and conducted the interviews as part of QT Lab. 

“We were going through all of the interviews and seeing what the participants talked about, and the common themes we found [are] what we decided to call ‘alienation and liminality,’” Ramanathan said. “So ‘alienation’ as in being alone and separated from the groups that you’re supposed to be a part of; and ‘liminality’ is being suspended, kind of, in between. You’re not here, you’re not there. It’s an uneasy feeling of like, ‘I’m not where I belong, but I don’t know where I belong.’”

Ramanathan said the exhibition focuses on three intersecting groups that are often left out of activism on campus: international students, graduate students and queer and trans students. 

“Graduate students aren’t talked about,” Ramanathan said. “All of the activism and everything that happens on campus is definitely that of the undergraduates, but we want their experiences to come to the forefront as well. We decided to focus on international students because a lot of them, especially queer and trans students, […] come from homophobic families or homophobic countries or towns. They don’t really have the chance to talk about being queer. And a lot of them come here to the United States and UC Davis and are able to explore that feeling of queerness, […] not that the United States is safe, but it’s safe enough for experiencing being queer and experiencing your queerness, and that’s why we wanted to do this. We wanted to highlight the queer experiences of these people by having a place where they can be queer.”

Aramo Olaya, a second-year international graduate student in the performance studies Ph.D. program, resonated with this notion as part of all three of these intersecting groups. 

“As a 42-years-old queer graduate international student, I feel that the U.S. is quite conservative and isolating,” Olaya said in an Instagram direct message. “Being single equals being alone. I haven’t found a sense of community with other queer people. Maybe it’s because of my age, but I have the sensation that everybody feels quite isolated and unsupported. This is a work culture; everybody seems afraid of everybody else.”

Multiple international students socializing in the International Center lobby agreed that the language barrier is a primary reason international exchange students and students here for short-duration English-learning programs sometimes feel isolated.

“From talking to a lot of the exchange students here, the biggest thing is that a lot of them do want to speak to local students or domestic students, but the issue is that a lot of them don’t feel really confident in their English ability,” said fourth-year global disease biology major Moriah Shih. “A majority of people feel a lot more comfortable speaking in their native language, and as a result, they just stick with one another. However, I have noticed that when you do […] make the effort to go and speak to them, they’re really welcoming, and they want people to reach out to them.”

Xie said that they wanted the exhibition to be available in more languages for international students, but because of location, funding, time and logistical constraints, they had limited resources to do so.

According to Olaya, graduate students don’t have much political power at the university, which is another reason they have reported feeling alienated. 

“Graduate representatives don’t really represent,” Olaya said. “We don’t have decision power in the departments, nor a decision-making organ that dialogues with the Dean’s Office. […] Politically, a university where students don’t have decision-making power is structurally disempowering for marginalized groups.”

As an artist, they feel that “collective physical pieces of art are good when they create chances for people to meet each other, talk and open and deepen relationships of trust, friendship and mutual support.” The QT Lab can bridge the gap between international, queer, graduate and other students. 

Shih said she hopes the exhibition will bring more people to the International Center to connect with the international student community. 

“I think that what we’re really missing is the integration of the international exchange student community with the rest of the Davis,” Shih said. “And I think it would be helpful if there were more efforts to connect students together and bring a more unified presence. If it weren’t for the fact that I had an interest in outreaching to international students to learn more about different cultures, I probably would not have had the opportunity to come to the [International Center].” 

Being part of the QT Lab project helped Ramanathan feel less alone and helped him connect his different identities. 

“We’re all our own little islands,” Ramanathan said. “We’re all islands and we all form an archipelago together. And it’s just comforting to know that even if nobody has the same experiences as you, there are people that have similar enough experiences that you can form a […] community. It’s nice; it’s comforting.”

The QT Lab is currently working on its white papers to present to the Chancellor’s Committee and other authoritative bodies at UC Davis in hopes of influencing university policy. The International Center exhibition will continue until the end of spring quarter.


Written by: Indranil Basu — features@theaggie.org