(Note to readers: Theo Calhoun prefers to use both he/him and they/them as a more accurate representation of their gender identity.)
Engaging with community is one of Theo Calhoun’s greatest motivations in pursuing a degree in ethnic, gender and labor studies (EGL). “EGL holds a lot of hard realities, but I continue to have hope because everything we’re learning will contribute to something greater for the next generation,” he said. “I continue to be inspired by those who have come before me. The work they’ve done has made a space for me and my peers to create positive social change.”
Calhoun came to UW Tacoma following graduation from Emerald Ridge High School in Puyallup. Through the Pathways to Promise partnership between UW Tacoma and Emerald Ridge, Calhoun was given direct admission based on their GPA and SAT scores. “There was definitely a lot of hard work that went into securing my seat at UW Tacoma, but it all felt worth it in the end,” he said. “I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my brother who also got a degree here.”
Calhoun didn’t know which path to follow, so he experimented with different courses in the hopes something would click. That happened when he took his first sociology class with UW Tacoma Lecturer Tanya Velasquez. “I took a sociology class from Tanya, who is now a mentor of mine. It was both an eye opener and a door opener. I just knew it was the path for me.” This developed into other interests for Calhoun such as race and ethnicity in the United States, Indigenous studies, and the history of blues music. “I love being able to take a class that can expand my worldview and bring me closer to understanding the experience of others,” he said.
Working in the Center for Equity and Inclusion (CEI) as the Identity Program Coordinator, Calhoun led workshops and events aimed at creating conversations within the UW Tacoma community. “I’ve been working in the CEI for about a year, and it’s made my experience at UW Tacoma more meaningful and connected,” they said. “Non-white, non-traditional students really need this space to find community. I really believe in the importance of our work.”
Calhoun has sought to bring his own experience studying EGL to the table with a specific focus on gender identity and race. “Our goal at the CEI is to work with students and create programs based on their needs to show that we’re here to support them and develop our community to be the best it can be,” he said. “That includes having discussions across faculty and student groups about issues like toxic masculinity, gender identity, and race in America.” In his time at the CEI, Calhoun has organized numerous discussions and workshops with other student staff members on topics such as preferred pronouns, multicultural celebrations, and social justice.
Calhoun is busy making a difference outside of school. He was recognized with the Sapphire Youth Award in 2017 at Tacoma Pride for his work in the community. This consisted of being a Speaker’s Bureau participant at the Oasis Youth Center as well as his role in anti-I-1515 canvassing in Tacoma. I-1515 was an initiative to restrict transgender individuals' access to public bathrooms. “We were talking with people in the community about trans identity with the hope that they wouldn’t sign the petitions or vote for the bill if it came to that,” they said. “Our goal was to keep these protections untouched.” Ultimately, supporters of I-1515 could not collect enough signatures to advance the initiative to the ballot.
An avid artist, Calhoun is always looking for opportunities to incorporate his craft into school work. “I’m really interested in filmmaking from the perspective of a documentary, but I also really enjoy comedy too,” he said. “A few quarters ago I took an EGL class and was able to make a short film about being of mixed-race identity that really helped my learning and the learning of the rest of the class.” In 2019, he was nominated by a fellow student for, and won, the Student Dream Award, which was given at the MLK Unity Breakfast to recognize how his work has significantly contributed to Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of equality for all.
Following graduation, Calhoun looks forward to enjoying some time off to relish his accomplishments and relax. Motivated by his drive to connect with community, he plans to pursue a job working with systemically non-dominant students in colleges to help promote their success. “I’m just young and excited about life,” he said. “Graduate school is in my future, but right now I want to work on gathering experiences before I commit to a program.”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or email@example.com