Jesse Pérez grew up at a time when speaking Spanish was still largely viewed as “less American” and a detriment to education and career in the U.S. So, his parents chose not to teach Pérez and his siblings the language.
But since then, being bilingual has become a “form of currency” on résumés and job applications, making candidates more attractiv, and Pérez says he’s now “taken the steps to reclaim that part of my heritage and culture.” He’s also helped language-diverse UCCS students do the same, over a 17-year career at UCCS — first as an undergraduate and graduate student, then as a student affairs professional and now as a lecturer and director of the Excel Languages Center.
“I love to help students realize that [bilingualism is] a really special and important part of who you are,” he says, “and it’s something that can get you ahead personally and in your career.”
Pérez’s career has been a journey of discovering his own identity as a Latino and gay man, then using that journey to help other young people experiencing similar questions, challenges and barriers to reach their full potential and acceptance. The LGBTQ community, in particular, has “always been a through line for me,” he says.
It started with his student activism as a part of Spectrum, UCCS’ LGBTQ+ Alliance, then in his work as program director for the LGBTQ+ Resource Center on campus, a role Pérez held for five years. This was uniquely challenging in Colorado Springs, he says.
Although college is the first time that many LGBTQ people come out — and it’s a generally welcoming place to do so — the Springs has limited off-campus queer-friendly spaces, like Club Q, which have recently been “violated,” he says.
Resource-focused LGBTQ organizations are also lacking in the city; UCCS’ resource center and Inside Out Youth Services are the only two that directly provide multiple services — legal, medical, mental health, housing and financial — Pérez says.
“I try to create spaces for everybody.”
“When it comes to an actual resource center that focuses on the broad range of barriers and issues, there’s not a whole lot” in the Springs, he says. “So in my role, what I would have to do was get creative.”
He recalls there were multiple times he rented a university van to drive students up to the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus for various one-stop-shop resource events, like a name-change clinic with legal experts to help transgender students with the burdensome and costly government process.
Along with Pérez’s commitment to advancing support for the LGBTQ campus community (he now continues this work as chair of the Staff Association’s Staff Pride Committee), he shares a philosophy of “meeting people where they are” in their understanding of queer people, as a way to develop more allies.
This is how Pérez says he approached the expansion of the Resource Center’s Safe Zone Training, a program geared towards helping people be better LGBTQ allies and advocates on campus. He focused on shedding the “you can’t sit with us” attitude towards people who aren’t up to speed on the community’s issues, and instead trying to get them there.
This can be controversial in the community — seen as “giving people a pass” or “coddling” folks, he says — but Pérez was given a sign of affirmation that this approach was working when in 2019 he won the University of Colorado’s system-wide President’s Diversity Award, an honor for which about a dozen people nominated him, related to his leadership of the Resource Center. He later led workshops for staff in the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
“I viewed it more as a demonstration that my approach was effective,” he says. “Prior to me assuming that role, I had experienced trainings and workshops where people and myself in some situations were made to feel like, ‘If you’re not at this level that we expect you to be, then why are you here?’
“…I try to create spaces for everybody,” Pérez says. “The way that we truly move the needle is to work with those that we disagree with. I made my training opportunities and my work accessible to a broad range of people.”