NSights Blog

The story of the Disability Resource Center lilac graduation tassel

Assistant Director of the Disability Resource Center Mary Anne Christensen discusses neurodiversity and the lilac tassels some graduates wear at commencement

At the 2018 fall orientation for the Disability Resource Center Peer Mentor Program, 50 mentors and mentees were asked as part of their mentorship agreement to choose an initiative to become part of, volunteer for and champion. At that time, the then five year old mentorship program had evolved into one of social wellness with professionally lead trainings, and one on one mentorship with a student-driven focus. It was providing a unique space for students to develop a true sense of belonging and campus community, and was attracting mentor applications from students outside of the Disability Resource Center.   

A number of initiatives were presented that Peer Mentor program students could choose from. One in particular had been a consistent request from many students who had accessed DRC services throughout the 18 years I have been a part of the department. This request was something students could wear as part of their graduation regalia to represent their struggles and their pride in accomplishment. It would show a part of their identity not formerly recognized that celebrated their unique contributions to the campus.  

At the final December celebration in 2018, DRC peer mentors and mentees decided to formally pick a color for a graduation tassel and chord that would come to represent “accessibility” and recognition for ALL students at the University of Nevada, Reno who chose to support and encourage access. Picking the color was the easy part. Students all agreed on the color lilac.  It was a color that everyone  liked and that was not representing another student group on campus. It was that simple.  But it in the spring of 2019, it became so much more.

That spring, DRC peer mentors and mentees decided to promote neurodiversity, as part of diversity and inclusion. Neurodiversity, is the simple idea that people have neurological differences that should be recognized and respected with all the strengths and weaknesses that embodies. Recent national trends show one-in-four students on college campuses identify as neurodiverse. The DRC at the University has seen consistent annual growth and currently serves more than 2,698 students. 

Neurodiversity became the catalyst for the DRC peer mentors to request a resolution from the Associated Students of the University of Nevada (ASUN) to recognize accessibility by supporting the lilac graduation tassel and chord. The DRC peer mentors presented to ASUN leadership, who unanimously supported and adopted Resolution 147 on April 3, 2019.  With that, the lilac tassel was born.

For the 2019 May Commencement, 25 students and staff were awarded and wore a lilac tassel and chord to their respective ceremonies. Of note was that not everyone who requested the tassel and chord were active DRC students. Graduates who chose the lilac regalia did so for a variety of reasons: to support and encourage accessibility, to support a family member who is neurodiverse, to support fellow students, to support staff who are neurodiverse and to support the University’s efforts to encourage access for all.

Much has happened since last May. Ten more students and staff have been awarded lilac tassels and chords for 2019 Winter Commencement. The University Faculty Senate Diversity Committee is working on a neurodiversity initiative for faculty and staff. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion is supporting neurodiversity. There are now two ASUN recognized clubs dedicated to students who identify as neurodiverse: “Wired Like This” and “NEURO.” A summer bridge program designed for incoming freshmen for fall 2020 who are neurodiverse is coming to fruition.

The best part of the lilac graduation tassel story and all it has led to, is that it is all about students. It started with students, was led by students and will continue to be driven by students. What a memorable way to celebrate ALL of our graduates this commencement season.

Mary Anne “Mac” Christensen is an Assistant Director at the Disability Resource Center.  She Coordinates the DRC Peer Mentor Program.  Commencement is her favorite event of the year at UNR.

She and her husband Lou live in Reno with their two cats, Cheddar and Blitz, and their two horses, Casper and Alex.  Mac is an outdoor enthusiast who loves to spend time with her animals.

Mary Anne Christensen
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