An inclusion advocate’s three decades of mentoring UChicago students

Kathy Forde reflects on career in the College, transformative impact of LGBTQ mentorship program

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

In 1987, Kathy Forde met her future wife at a comedy show in suburban DeKalb, Illinois. Their relationship story was typical in many ways: They dated, they got a house and dogs together, and they got married.

Yet, when she was an academic adviser for the University of Chicago in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Forde realized her experience resonated with LGBTQ students in a way she didn’t anticipate—as a valuable glimpse into what life after graduation could look like for undergraduates in the College.

Two people are shown outside on a sunny day. The person on the right (Kathy Forde) is wearing red-tinted sunglasses.
Kathy Forde (right) and wife Yvonne Zipter (Photo courtesy of Kathy Forde)

“My wife Yvonne and I used to say, ‘We’re the most boring people ever,’” said Forde, the senior associate dean of students and director of academic advising in the College. “We are part of our community, and we go to work, yet we're not doing anything super exciting. But in a weird way, that's mostly what students wanted to hear.”

Twenty years ago, Forde launched what is now known as the Office of LGBTQ Student Life mentorship program at UChicago, pairing LGBTQ students with LGBTQ faculty through regular one-on-one meetings and group outings, and connecting students with valuable guidance and resources.

Diana Doty, AB’02, was one of the first student mentees in the program. Originally from a rural town without any other queer adults in her life, she came out in 2000 as a third-year student. What appealed to her about the mentorship, she said, was simply having someone with whom she could be “her full self.”

“My experience in the program was lovely, warm and so remarkably important to me but also so strikingly mundane,” she said. “Mostly, my mentor and I had coffee every couple weeks and got to know each other. What I learned was the lesson I needed the most: Queer grown-ups can build lives of love and joy. It sounds so simple, but it changed my life.”

Doty went on to work as an activities resource coordinator with the Center for Leadership and Involvement through 2006 and served as a mentor in the program to “pay it forward.”

The program is still going strong today, and is one of many ways Forde has meaningfully impacted the UChicago community during her three decades at the University. Additional achievements include helping establish the Center for Diversity + Inclusion and winning honors for her diversity leadership and work with scholar-athletes.

In her current role, Forde works with a team of academic advisers and deans who provide support to undergraduate students. But ask her about all she has accomplished, and she is quick to give her colleagues most of the credit. The people of UChicago, and their willingness to support students at every opportunity, Forde said, are the reasons she has stayed here for so long. 

“In our office, there's a level of trust,” she said. “There's this knowledge that we all really want the best for students, and we're all working together in different ways to get there.”

Stepping out of her comfort zone

A Chicago native, Forde earned an English degree from Northern Illinois University then worked for the University of Chicago Press’s Astrophysical Journal in 1988—first as a production controller, and then as a manuscript editor. 

Forde realized that she wanted to pursue career opportunities that allowed her to work more closely with other people, particularly students. 

At the same time, she was volunteering as a youth group adviser at an LGBTQ community center called Horizons Community Service, now called the Center on Halsted. She found helping young people especially fulfilling, so when an academic adviser job opened up at the College in 1990, she applied.

Forde “absolutely fell in love” with the job, and has been with the College ever since, rising to senior adviser and eventually to associate dean over 25 years of service. In 2015, Jay Ellison, dean of students in the College, promoted her to direct the academic advising office after she spoke up to prevent him from making a mistake. 

“Kathy is a tremendous advocate for issues of importance to the campus community, and I wanted to put her in a position where she could contribute the most,” Ellison said. “Students, faculty and staff alike value Kathy’s longevity and knowledge. She’s very well respected for the contributions she has made in her time here. And she is a great leader in our office.”

Making an impact—and history

Early in her tenure at the University, Forde noticed opportunities to further support the LGBTQ community, such as domestic partner benefits—especially for health insurance—provided to straight married couples.

To connect with fellow LGBTQ staff and faculty members and advocate for their partners to receive health coverage, Forde joined the Lesbian and Gay Faculty and Staff Organization (LEGFASO). LEGFASO’s advocacy work led to UChicago’s 1992 implementation of full domestic partnership benefits, including health insurance, for LGBTQ faculty, staff and students.

Forde developed deep relationships with many faculty and staff members as part of LEGFASO. Over time, she realized they could also work together to enhance the LGBTQ student experience. So with help from Jim Howley, a former graduate career counselor, and Anne Pizzi, former president of the student organization Queers & Associates, Forde launched the groundbreaking LGTBQ mentoring program in 2001.

At that time, resources on LGBTQ identity were expanding on campuses across the country, but there wasn’t much information about life after graduation, Forde said. This program, among the first of its kind in the U.S., aimed to close that gap and help students navigate the University. 

Within a year, the program included over 100 participants. When the Office of LGBTQ Student Life was established at UChicago in 2008, it took ownership of the program and further expanded it, which Forde said has been a “wonderful success.”

The ripples of Forde’s work have been substantial, to say the least. In 2012, the University received a perfect five-star rating from the Campus Pride Index, which annually rates schools on LGBTQ inclusion. More targeted mentorship programs have been formed at UChicago as a result of her program’s success, and many other institutions across the country have formed their own LGBTQ mentorship programs as well.

“Kathy is a staunch and steadfast advocate with the ability to create an environment where we, as students, could feel both witnessed and supported, but also capable, brave and strong,” Doty said. “The program felt like magic then—and 20 years on, even more so.”

Helping students in a time of need

A portrait of Kathy Forde in front of an arched set of wooden doors.
Kathy Forde (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Forde has helped expand UChicago’s impact in other ways, too. She is particularly proud of a 2017 project that brought to campus students and faculty displaced by Hurricanes Irma and Maria to campus.

In the wake of those two storms, the University of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was in desperate need of relief. UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture organized a program to support scholars and artists who had been displaced by the damage. Nine undergraduates, four graduate students, two artists and four visiting faculty came to campus at the beginning of Spring Quarter 2018.

One of Forde’s tasks, with help from the Office of the Provost, was to assign UChicago advisers to the new students. In an email to advisers, Forde explained that many of these students had never been outside of Puerto Rico and would require a fair amount of assistance.

“And, boom—as soon as I sent the message, I pretty much had to turn advisers away because people were so excited about helping out,” she said.

Forde’s current role in the academic advising office is not as student-facing as it once was, but she said the relationships she has made with students will stay with her for the rest of her career.

“UChicago students are really, really impressive,” Forde said. “It's a group that is always challenging us to be our best. So it's just very fun to be able to work with them.”

For Forde, returning to campus for diploma ceremonies in June reminded her how much she is looking forward to seeing everyone in person again this fall, and reinforced what she has always loved most about working at UChicago: the people.

“Being on campus was so exciting, and I realized, I want this again,” she said. “I want to be able to interact with people, I want to be able to talk to people on the bus and bump into people in the hallways and on campus. I have really missed that.”

—This story first appeared on the University of Chicago News website.