By Alana Walls
When Matt Little first arrived at the University of Nevada, Reno from Las Vegas in 2012, they were struck by the beauty of the campus. Despite this charm, Little describes feelings of isolation and exclusion, “There just weren’t places for marginalized people to exist in,” Little said. Little, who identifies as queer, explains their experience, “It reminds me of a story a professor told me describing a forest in Germany that was cut down and replaced with straight rows of identical trees. That was the queer experience on the University of Nevada, Reno’s campus; the controlled scripted beauty cut out any spaces for diversity.”
These experiences led Little to make changes. During their undergraduate program, Little served as a youth program coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club and an RA in the dorms. These positions provided Little the opportunity to create the spaces that they didn’t have and helped them discover a passion for leadership. Little started as a journalism major and says from that experience, “I learned the value of capturing the stories of people in our community.” Their passion for community-building inspired them to switch from journalism to women’s studies, where they were provided the opportunity to explore queer and feminist theory and its application to activism.
After working in the Reno/Sparks community, Little returned to the University of Nevada, Reno campus in 2020 as a graduate student in the Department of Gender, Race, and Identity. Little describes their post-graduation work in local organizations, “I experienced neoliberal entities taking advantage of marginalized communities and wanted to learn more about how to counter systems of oppression.” Little was quickly hired as a graduate assistant in the Bonner Leadership Program. The Bonner Leadership Program, previously housed in the Honors College, moved to the Office of Service Learning in 2020, making it available to more students. It is a four-year, undergraduate, civic engagement program that offers leadership training, academic support and the opportunity to positively impact the University and the wider Reno/Sparks community.
While excited about their new position, Little recognized that the program was not fully serving the marginalized communities it was designed for. Little explains, “I saw right away that there was space to make the program social-justice focused. We shifted agency to the students and had them recognize their own privileges and oppressions.” Little developed a comprehensive curriculum utilizing queer and feminist theories focused on exploring identity, community organizing, collective action and advocacy. Little explains that students in the program cannot make lasting change without understanding their own positionality and establishing a collective identity. Little also developed a handbook for the students to clarify the program’s expectations. They explain, “The handbook allows for critical and consensual engagement. Students give their consent to understand what they’re getting involved in.” The Bonner Leadership Program is currently accepting applications for their new cohort. Undergraduate students can find more information by visiting the Bonner Leadership Program website.
Little’s restructuring of the Bonner Leadership Program is part of their master’s degree program of study. Master’s students in Gender, Race, and Identity may complete their degree with an emphasis on community engagement, as Little has chosen, or an interdisciplinary emphasis (thesis or non-thesis options available). Students who opt for the community engagement route participate in three-to-nine internship credits with a community partner. Little describes their experience in Gender, Race, and Identity, “I returned to UNR as soon as the GRI department implemented their graduate degree. I’ve appreciated the creative liberty to put ideas into fruition.” The department offers undergraduate and graduate students a wide range of curriculum and includes core faculty who share appointments in the sociology, history, anthropology, English and communication studies departments. The department also offers undergraduate minors in Ethnic Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Latinx Studies, Indigenous Studies, Religious Studies, Holocaust, Genocide, and Peace Studies, and Social Justice.
Little plans to graduate in the spring of 2022. They will present the handbook they developed for the Bonner Leadership Program, as well as the curriculum, to their committee members. Little explains, “I’ve always been a non-traditional student. I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to do and to provide space for other non-traditional students.” Through their work with Gender, Race, and Identity and the Bonner Leadership Program, Little has helped create more inclusive spaces for marginalized communities, spaces that weren’t there when they first arrived on campus.