PhD student shares about ASU journey, research on how transgender narratives are shared and preserved
From Hannah Grabowski’s first year as an undergraduate student at Arizona State University to now as a graduate student, their studies and free time have been focused on supporting and advocating for others.
Grabowski promoted sexual health education and healthy relationships through ASU’s Devils in the Bedroom, worked with survivors of sexual and relationship violence through the Sun Devil Support Network and served as the inaugural director of sexual health and wellness for the undergraduate student government on the Tempe campus. Today, Grabowski serves as graduate mentor to three undergraduate students who make up the executive board of ASU’s new Accessibility Coalition.
“I am open about being disabled, nonbinary and queer because I think not only is it a way to relate and bond with students, but also visibility is important,” Grabowski said. “I'm also open about being a first-generation college student from a low-income background.”
Grabowski credits their motivation to advocate for others to lived experiences and perspectives gained from being raised by a progressive family in Ohio.
“My mother, my grandparents and my great-grandmother all identified as feminist, and people in my family worked in labor unions. Growing up in a low-income household gave me a certain perspective on justice when it comes to classism,” they said. “I attribute it to my mother giving me resources on learning about diverse communities from a young age … it just feels natural to me.”
Grabowski graduated with bachelor’s degrees in justice and social inquiry as well as women and gender studies from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2018. They are now earning a PhD in gender studies as well as two certificates in disability studies and sexuality studies, all from the School of Social Transformation.
“I'm very interested in how narratives of love and community — mostly within the transgender community, but also larger LGBT — are preserved and archived,” Grabowski said.
Accessible, nontraditional archives are a focus of Grabowski’s research, archives that go beyond typical university or museum environments and are well embedded within the community.
“I think it's really important for trans people to have access to their own community's history and how that can be featured and uplifted. I think there's kind of a singular narrative that the transgender life is exclusively traumatic and dysphoric. I think it's important to understand those phenomena, but I think it's just as important to recognize love and joy within the trans experience and community.”
As Grabowski’s research of material from the 1980s to 2010 in the U.S. and Canada continues, they are prioritizing two questions: How does transgender representation and erasure in archives impact the community’s sense of belonging? And what can trans studies, which considers both the material and the existential, offer to archival studies?
Grabowski shared more about their experiences at ASU.
Question: What drew you to ASU initially, and what made you want to stay?
Answer: Both the women and gender studies program and justice studies are in the School of Social Transformation, and I didn't see a comparable program or school or community at other colleges. I toured ASU and felt from the start that it was a welcoming place and even though it was so big that it would be easy to find a community. With staying at ASU for my graduate program, I already had these relationships and connections with professors that I wanted to deepen. I had a really good support system here so it made sense just to continue my journey somewhere that felt like home and supportive and that I could explore new research topics, but with the same people.
Q: Can you share more about your role in the Accessibility Coalition and what it aims to achieve?
A: Part of the Accessibility Coalition and part of disability justice is that there's not a hierarchy — we are all about collaboration — so even while we have an executive board for the undergraduate students, we don't have a president or vice president; everybody is on the same playing field. As a mentor, I wanted to learn how to be a supportive future faculty member to undergraduate students and help teach the younger generations of students about resources and learn throughout the process of what it means to organize and plan events.
The Accessibility Coalition is more than advocating for accommodations — it is about the social atmosphere and emotional well-being of the disability community. It’s also about disability justice; we prioritize more than just a rights-based approach. The reason we pitched to the Council of Coalitions is we want to collaborate with our intersecting communities, like women who are disabled and Black students who are disabled, international students who are disabled, and create a culture of disability. We want visibility and presence and celebration of the disabled community – accessibility is more than just accommodations and accessible entrances to a building.
Q: What have been your favorite memories at ASU?
A: I would say the Accessibility Coalition is one of them. And one of my greatest accomplishments during my undergrad was organizing free STI testing for hundreds of ASU students through the health center and through the county health department.
Q: Which professors or mentors have positively impacted your experience at ASU?
A: In my undergrad, my thesis director at Barrett (the Honors College) was Dr. Jennifer Brian. I was having a really tough time in my last semester, and I went to her and I was like, “I'm going to withdraw from Barrett; I want to drop out; I can't do this.” And she gave me a hug and a piece of chocolate and then basically said, “No, you're not.” It was that balance of emotional support and comfort and also the academic support at the same time of being like, “I'm going to challenge you because I know you can do it.”
And then in my graduate program, my adviser and somebody who coached me into how to apply to grad school is Dr. Lisa Anderson. Dr. Mako Fitts Ward taught me the most about how to be a feminist in higher education, in a bureaucratic university setting and about how to keep my values of liberation, love and justice, even when you're faced with hard decisions. And then Dr. Jessica Solyom, who is like my best friend. She is a very caring and kind person; she'll listen to me and not just give me advice. She's very meaningful to me.
Q: Tell us about the online class you’re teaching this summer.
A: This is my first time teaching WST 460: Women and the Body, and I give thanks to Dr. Mako Ward for sharing her previous syllabus with me. We will discuss the way the body is rhetorically made and remade, how bodies are surveilled and managed in society and about bodily norms. It's also really important to me to feature BIPOC, disabled and LGBT writers, artists and content creators.
Q: What do you hope to do after your PhD?
A: I am hoping to stay in higher education and become an educator, faculty member or professor in a school, whether a small liberal arts college or a huge university. As long as I reach one student I'm happy. So I'm really open to different places throughout the United States, whether it’s somewhere with a really robust gender studies program or if it's working in other disciplines, like philosophy or sociology.