Extreme Makeover

SGA’s new president is promoting a culture change on campus

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He’s only five minutes late, but Austin Laufersweiler calls one morning in May to apologize and explain that he just got out of a meeting. As the new president of UGA’s Student Government Association (SGA), he has many demands on his time. But Laufersweiler is not the average student—once a victim of bullying, he remade himself into an advocate, effecting change and receiving accolades at the local, state and national levels. Now he’s putting his skills to work in the service of his fellow students at UGA.

While campaigning for SGA president during spring semester, Laufersweiler and his team emphasized retooling the organization to better serve student needs and also create a culture change—one that encourages students to get more involved on campus. Measuring success with the latter goal is going to be tough, but Laufersweiler thinks that figuring out what they’re passionate about—it could be athletics, research, theater, social justice or just about anything—will help students graduate with a much better understanding of what they want from life.

“I think UGA will improve if people start to advocate for positive change in those areas that they care about,” he says. “I think that promotes overall campus growth, the betterment of UGA as an institution and then society, upon graduation.”

It’s a lesson he learned at a young age. Laufersweiler was 16 when he decided to address bullying at his high school. That effort segued into working for new legislation at the county level and eventually into lobbying the U.S. Congress and accepting an invitation to the White House. So this 22-year-old senior from Marietta knows exactly how valuable it can be to embrace and follow your passion. It shapes who you are and who you become.

“I just wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without those experiences early on,” he says.

In June, Laufersweiler began a steady schedule of speaking to incoming freshmen, on campus for orientation, about SGA. Four times a week he addressed groups of 25 to 50 incoming students, introducing them to SGA programs and sometimes digressing to offer the insights of an upperclassman. Snelling Dining Hall, he tells them, is open 24 hours. Eating at East Campus Village, he says, is worth the hike—especially when they’re serving buffalo chicken pizza or strawberry feta salad.

Speaking at these sessions, and also working twice a week at the orientation resource fair, is a significant time commitment. Instead of sending another representative, Laufersweiler is doing it himself to demonstrate that SGA is here to serve students. He wants freshmen to recognize his face when they arrive on campus.

The young man addressing crowds weekly this summer is much more self assured than the sophomore who entered a guidance counselor’s office at Lassiter High School in 2007. He wanted to address bullying, but he was nervous, and for good reason. He’d been a target for years.

“I was bullied in elementary school because people perceived me as gay and feminine, and I did not identify that way,” he says. “I remember in the 5th grade, in particular, I got called gay a lot and girly, and I grew to take great offense to that, because I felt it wasn’t true.”

In middle school, there was gossip that made him uncomfortable and more labels he didn’t like. During his freshman year of high school, the bullying became more overt. Laufersweiler got pushed while walking to class. It was subtle, but deliberate. After it happened a couple of times, he changed his route.

“I didn’t realize it was a problem,” he says. “I had grown to accept it.”

He’d also grown to accept something about himself. The day after his 16th birthday, Laufersweiler told his family that he was gay. Coming out had a secondary effect at school—no one at school bothered him anymore.

But he knew there must be others experiencing what he’d gone through.

“I had to change my daily life because of the way I was treated. Whereas it’s not a huge inconvenience to walk a different way to class, I shouldn’t have to,” he says. “It’s one thing to allow a certain student or type of student or characteristic to exist, but it’s another one to embrace it or accept it or acknowledge it. And those last three were not what I was experiencing.”

Laufersweiler’s first step was visiting his guidance counselor’s office. He was nervous, but reassured by the presence of a sticker on the door—it said “Safe Space” and included a small rainbow flag.

“To most students, I don’t think that would mean much, but I was able to identify the meaning of that, which meant if you’re an LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] student… it’s likely that I would have a safe space there,” he says. “I would be able to talk to her about things like this.”

He met that day with guidance counselor Diane Wilkes and Maru Gonzalez, a school counseling intern. Gonzalez remembers a passionate but fearful young man who was fidgety and didn’t make eye contact. But he did want to make a difference, and Lassiter High School’s gay-straight alliance club was formed as a result. A couple of months later, Laufersweiler and other members organized a voluntary teacher training on how to create safe schools, emphasizing the academic benefits for all students, not just LGBT students. About 60 faculty members came and listened to him and other students speak about their experiences.

“It was incredibly courageous of the students to do that in this somewhat resistant environment, and it was very, very effective,” Gonzalez says.

“That was the start of something really special.”

In June 2010, Austin Laufersweiler found himself shaking hands with President Barack Obama during the LGBT Pride Reception at the White House. After seeing a visible transformation at his high school, he’d devoted the next year to his new calling.

“Creating a safe environment for all students became my charge,” he says.

It was something of a surprise. When Laufersweiler came out to his family—his parents, Steve and Mary, who divorced when he was young, and his older sister Lindsey and younger brother Owen—they expressed concern that he would experience negative repercussions. He assured them that he wasn’t going to become an advocate.

“I remember saying to my family that I had no intentions of getting on a soapbox or trying to be public about this, but it turned out to be the exact opposite,” he says. “And it was something that I fell into, not driven so much by the idea of being an activist, but there were important issues that needed to be addressed, and if not me, then who?”

He and Gonzalez, who had become a close friend, helped to create the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, an organization devoted to eliminating oppression of LGBT students in Georgia schools. Run by volunteers, the coalition addresses policy change, offers teacher training and sponsors a gay-straight alliance summit every year. For six months the two worked to change Cobb County’s anti-bullying harassment policy, attending school board meetings every month and partnering with other groups like disability rights.

“There is now in Cobb County a comprehensive anti-bullying harassment policy that protects not only LGBT students but also LGBT faculty. I think Austin should get a great deal of credit for that,” Gonzalez says. “It’s one thing to hear an adult say, ‘Oh, I think this policy is a good idea’ versus a student saying, ‘Look, this is my experience in the hallways at your school, and this is why we need a stronger anti-bullying and harassment policy.’ It’s much more impactful.”

In 2009 Laufersweiler was named the first Student Advocate of the Year by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national safe schools organization. He and Gonzalez, who nominated him, attended a red carpet event in Los Angeles, where Laufersweiler gave a speech in front of a crowd including cast members from “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Dancing with the Stars” and “True Blood.” Later the two attended the Safe Schools Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C., through the network, where they lobbied Congressional representatives for passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act.

But while he was experiencing great success, Laufersweiler was also dealing with great sorrow. During his senior year, his mother died after years of chronic lung illness.

“That kind of lit a fire under me to go out and do things,” he says. “She was a big support system for me, and so that was a strong motivator.”

His mother, named Mary, was called “Pixie,” which said a lot about who she was, according to Laufersweiler. She had “a sense of unbridled excitement” and a go-for-it attitude.

“A lot of the things that I do, I do them kind of in her memory because I know it’s something she’d be excited about and care a lot about.”

In March 2012 Gonzalez and Laufersweiler ran the Atlanta marathon and half marathon, respectively, to raise money for the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition. Five months later, Laufersweiler joined the inaugural Youth Advisory Board for the Born This Way Foundation. Created by pop star Lady GaGa, the foundation seeks to create a kinder and braver world. That concept—seeking culture change—is one that’s important to him.

Laufersweiler’s thoughts on his journey have been preserved through StoryCorps, an oral history project that records participant interviews for preservation at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He was interviewed by Gonzalez, now a doctoral student in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“As educators, you sort of go into schools thinking you’re there to inspire students... And then someone like Austin comes along and really just transforms your way of thinking,” she says. “Austin is really one of the primary reasons that I’m getting my doctorate and doing the kind of work that I do because I see firsthand how important it is.”

When he was campaigning for SGA president last spring, Laufersweiler had trouble sleeping. Running through his head constantly was a barrage of questions: What could we do better? What’s the next step for SGA?

“It’s the greatest and most terrible two weeks of your life, because the highs are so high and the lows are very low,” he says.

To relax before bedtime, he watched videos of blue whales.

“I just found them really interesting and very relaxing creatures. [They don’t] seem to have a lot of concerns. [They’re] too large to have any natural predators, and I thought, ‘What a life to swim around the ocean without having any fear of being eaten.’”

Campaign stress is unavoidable with the entire process crammed into two weeks, but Laufersweiler inadvertently has been preparing for his role as SGA president since he arrived at UGA. During his first year he led the Freshman Board, a group of 15 students that represent their class in SGA concerns. During that year he met sophomore Belle Doss (AB ’13), who was assigned to be his SGA mentor. Their first meeting was “very, very memorable.”

“He had more ideas and more things that he wanted to do in the four years that he was here than anyone I’d ever met,” Doss says.

She encouraged him to sustain that passion the whole time he was on campus, and Laufersweiler did his best, overcommitting during his sophomore year because he was interested in so many things. He refers to the condition as FOMO—fear of missing out.

“Once he realized that he couldn’t do 35 things on campus and love them all, he really found his drive and his passion for the things that he really wanted to devote himself to,” she says.

He and Doss became close friends, and he stayed with SGA, serving as a senator during his sophomore year and chief of staff during his junior year. He also worked with Designated Dawgs, which provides safe, free, nonjudgmental rides home for students, and Shop with a Bulldawg, a student organization that aims to bring the joy of the holiday season to underprivileged children in Athens-Clarke County. And he became a member of the Arch Society, official hosts and goodwill ambassadors for UGA.

When it was time to plan for his senior year, Laufersweiler made a decision that would have made his mother proud.

“I guess I could have taken a back seat, but I felt compelled to use all of my knowledge and experience in the highest capacity, and that would require running for president,” he says.

“I love [SGA], but even more than that I love what it can do. I love the potential that’s there.”

He based his decision on passion, but Laufersweiler applied himself to the task with lots of hard work—a quality he learned from his father, Steve.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere without my dad’s hard work,” he says. “At this point in my life, whereas I do things in memory of my mom and really keep her in mind, my dad is my biggest support system… I would not have been able to do what I have done at UGA without the support of my dad.”

Laufersweiler recruited friends Uzma Chowdhury and Mary Grace Griffin as running mates. Griffin had been involved in SGA since her freshman year, but Chowdhury was an SGA outsider and took some convincing.

“It took a couple of months. I said no for a very long time,” she says, laughing.

“I honestly would never have done it if I didn’t know Austin.”

The three developed their EmbarkUGA campaign with the intention of overhauling SGA, making it more accountable to students and putting in place long-term strategies to increase student involvement and end apathy—in other words, effect a culture change.

“It was really important to us that the motto of SGA is the voice of every Dawg, and not just people who’d been in SGA for four years,” Chowdhury says.

“Some of the things that we had a problem with or had concerns about, we thought, you know there’s really no one better to solve these problems than us,” Griffin says. “And if we really want to see a change, then we have to be the ones to make it happen.”

And for perhaps the first time in years, Laufersweiler did not have to talk publicly about being gay and being bullied.

“It was significant to me that it wasn’t a part of the campaign at all,” he says. “No one brought it up, and a lot of people knew, but it was just never a point of contention. I thought, ‘What if they ask me about it during the debate?’ They didn’t do that, didn’t go anywhere near that. We didn’t lose support, to my knowledge, because of it.”

Ask Austin Laufersweiler whom he admires, and he comes up with two names: C.J. Cregg and Toby Ziegler. They’re characters from “The West Wing,” a TV show that followed the lives of White House staffers and ran from 1999-2006.

Press secretary Cregg and speechwriter Ziegler represented two parts of the communication process for their fictional president—shaping the message and crafting the message. For Laufersweiler, who’s double majoring in communication studies at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and political science at the School of Public and International Affairs, it’s the perfect combination of his interests.

“I’m fascinated with why people believe what they do, and I think when you can answer that question, it makes people much easier to reach.”

Like many seniors facing graduation, Laufersweiler isn’t sure how to translate his interests into a job. Speechwriting for a politician would keep him in messaging and politics and also provide the opportunity to respond quickly to issues and events—where he sees a lot of potential to do good.

“I don’t think I’m an 8 to 5, Monday through Friday kind of person. The spontaneity of a high-stress, high-impact situation—that’s what drives me,” he says. “That’s why I loved the SGA campaign so much. That was probably the happiest I have been, despite the stress.”

The general consensus from his friends is that Laufersweiler has the talent and the drive to do whatever he wants.

“I just kind of sit back in amazement at how far he’s come since that afternoon in my office,” Gonzalez says.

“Austin is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met about everything that he does,” Chowdhury says. “And he doesn’t give up on things. I’m really excited to see what he does in the future… because I expect really big things from him.”

For the next year, Laufersweiler will devote himself to serving UGA students and leaving SGA in a position to continue improving after the Embark team is gone. After that, he’ll continue to follow his passion wherever it leads.

“I believe that people are on this Earth for a reason,” he says. “I want to find my purpose. I want to have an impact. That is how I am fulfilled—by knowing that I have changed something for the better.”