Student Story

Rayna Danis '22MA, '22MPP Makes an Impact with the Joint Master's in Gender and Cultural Studies and Public Policy

Why did you choose to pursue a master's in gender and cultural studies and public policy?

It was actually a massive surprise to me – and probably to many people who knew me growing up – that I chose to pursue a master’s degree. I was homeschooled for pretty much my whole life in a conservative, rural area where I struggled with isolation, especially from the queer community. I didn’t finish my high school program until I was 20, and I hated the whole experience. I sort of unintentionally wound up enrolling in college, and it took a while for me to find my stride in higher education.

Once I had the opportunity to integrate into the college classroom, I realized that I had found my passion. Around the time I started undergrad at Salisbury University, I started volunteering with my local PFLAG group, which had only recently formed at the time. Not only did I have a space where I felt heard and seen in my community, but I was also a real and active part of a discussion of progress and inclusion that was constantly evolving in a community where I never thought I would see that.

When it came time to graduate with a BA in gender & sexuality studies and a minor in sociology, I honestly just felt that I had barely scratched the surface of what I wanted to learn. Policy wasn’t initially in my thought process until I came across the program at Simmons – I actually failed my civics class twice in middle school, so I was very hesitant. But, despite that, going into policy was a great fit for me because it seemed like the best way to make and be a part of effective change. Simmons was one of the very few graduate schools in the country to offer the joint masters in gender and cultural studies and public policy (GCS/MPP), which I thought was so unique.

By combining both of these academic areas, you really push yourself – and others – to think critically about how policy is formed and who it ultimately winds up benefitting. We live in a democracy right now that caters to a couple of really specific demographics, and that obviously has a significant impact on the well-being of literally everyone else. I saw this a lot growing up. Overall, there are so many complex discussions happening around policy, especially over the last few years, and Simmons’ location in Boston seemed to offer the best possible place for me to find opportunities to join discussions on my areas of interest.

By combining both of these academic areas, you really push yourself – and others – to think critically about how policy is formed and who it ultimately winds up benefitting.

In your experience, what are the best features of the GCS/MPP program?

By being in both programs, I feel like I get the opportunity to actively put the theory into practice and affect policy change in areas that will really impact queer communities. I get to work with brilliant professors who challenge me to think critically about what I’m learning but have also been so supportive in these uncertain times.

When I started the program in January of 2020, we obviously had no idea that we’d be making this massive shift online during a global pandemic six weeks later. I think the professors did an incredible job moving the classes over and, especially in that first semester, were great about making sure that we all had some time as a class to process everything that was happening. I was in Aaron Rosenthal’s “Social Policy Analysis” class at the time, which was really helpful because we could process and analyze COVID-19 policy solutions as they were being proposed and enacted. It was also a presidential election year, so there was certainly a lot to discuss.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I wish I’d done anything differently given the pandemic or if I wish I had just placed the program on hold, but I think that Simmons was the best place for me to be during these last couple of years. It’s really helped me process the current policy discussions and look critically at how the policy solutions are truly working – or not working in many cases. Plus, my classmates are amazing, and it’s been great to have such a strong support system of friends with me.

Tell us about your position with the MA Commission on LGBTQ Youth.

I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: “What can you do with a degree in gender & sexuality studies? There are no jobs for that.” Except, there are so many, and the combination of my degree program and my current job has shown me that there are more opportunities than I initially thought.

I joined the Commission as an administrative assistant in late May of 2021. The position came to my attention because of Simmons, so I was grateful for that connection. Since I started, I’ve helped review and format the Commission’s 2022 Annual Recommendations Report; learned how to manage an 800k state budget; learned how to facilitate LGBTQ+ diversity training with public school staff and faculty; and worked with other agencies and non-profit organizations to address issues affecting LGBTQ youth across the state.

There is a very clear and real need for the work that the Commission is doing in Massachusetts. I would love to see it modeled in other states. LGBTQ youth are among some of the most vulnerable populations across the country, particularly LGBTQ youth of color, and it’s essential that states engage in a larger conversation about how to support youth to reduce bullying and suicide rates nationally.

What’s your favorite part of this position?

I’m all about experiences, and honestly, this job provides so many unique opportunities to learn and grow. I feel incredibly fortunate to be working with Jo Trigilio, the Interim Executive Director, who has been so mindful about making sure that I’m getting the most out of my journey with the Commission. Jo’s passion for racial justice and commitment to ensuring that we represent as many voices as we can in the Commission’s work has been inspiring. It’s been helpful for my own research at Simmons, and I think my thesis will ultimately benefit a lot from my work here at the Commission.

I also get an inside look at how the agency works at a policy level. I’m currently taking “Intersectionality and Public Policy” with Leanne Doherty, and it’s great to be working on theoretical frameworks that I can then take into work with me the next day.

Tell us about being selected as a fellow for the Getting to Zero Coalition.

The Getting to Zero Coalition was started in Massachusetts in 2015 by the AIDS Action Committee and Fenway Health and is now a collective of 40+ organizations across the state dedicated to ending the HIV epidemic. The Activist Academy Fellowship provides its fellows with the opportunity to develop a project that will engage the community to bring awareness to a particular policy issue, like sex work decriminalization.

I was really pleased to be selected for the Activist Academy and placed on the Sex Work Decriminalization Team. It’s a great opportunity to work with and learn from advocates in the field, as well as the other fellows who are all coming in with different backgrounds.

I’m looking forward to working with my teammates and mentors to develop a project that has an impact in the community around the conversation of HIV awareness and sex work decriminalization.

I can’t wait to see what the next few years hold for me, and I know that I’ll be crediting a lot of my success along the way back to Simmons and the amazing people I’ve met.

How have the lessons learned at Simmons translated to what you're doing now?

Everything that I’ve learned at Simmons so far has led me to where I am. When I started the program, I honestly had no clue what I wanted to do outside of just getting my graduate degrees. Especially once the pandemic hit, the job market dried up. I was in such a panic for basically the first six months I was in the program, but being at Simmons has shown me how versatile my experience in my program is when it comes to the job market.

I think the most important thing that Simmons has taught me is perseverance and focus. When you’re an activist or just really passionate about helping communities, it’s easy to get lost in the multitude of issues that we discuss in the classroom. Burnout is incredibly common, so the GCS/MPP program has shown me how to be more confident in my field and focus my research a lot more so I don’t feel stretched thin.

How did it feel to be selected to speak at the joint GCS/MPP degree launch?

It definitely feels incredible, if a little overwhelming. Like many other graduate students, I’ve always struggled pretty heavily with imposter syndrome, but Suzanne Leonard’s support since joining this program has been wonderful and so helpful. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to speak about how Simmons and the MPP/GCS program as a whole have helped me in my career goals and my development as a professional, an activist, and just as a person.

I’ll be speaking at the event from a hotel room in Las Vegas because I’m presenting on a paper the next day at the PAMLA 2021 conference. So, it’s definitely going to be a really memorable experience all around.

How is Simmons preparing you to become an everyday leader?

Simmons has really helped me be more confident in my research and in challenging normative structures that often perpetuate systemic racism, homophobia, and transphobia. For me, being a leader has always meant making sure that I’m creating a brave space to help others reach their potential and express their voice.

Simmons has definitely given me access to methods that help me keep doing that but in a more mindful and racial justice-centered way. I can’t wait to see what the next few years hold for me, and I know that I’ll be crediting a lot of my success along the way back to Simmons and the amazing people I’ve met.

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