Vassar Today

Blegen House: A Cultural and Social Space

By Juliana Kiyan ’09

Situated just beyond the walls of Vassar at 37 Collegeview Avenue, Blegen House is an important resource for the campus community.

As The Campus Life Resource Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Communities and Social Justice Education, Blegen hosts a number of social and cultural programs and collaborates with student organizations through the campus life office.

Julie Silverstein is the new assistant director for campus life and LGBTQ programs. Silverstein wants Blegen to “not only be an educational place, but also somewhere students can be comfortable and hang out,” she says. Under her guidance Blegen has developed the Spectrum Leadership Council and several intern-led programs.

The council brings together representatives from, among others, Queer Coalition of Vassar College, Act Out!, FemAlliance, and Sexual Assault Violence Prevention (SAVP) to meet on a regular basis and discuss ideas for collaboration. Five student interns have also taken the initiative to reach out to the LGBTQ and greater campus community with regular programs and discussions. One such is “QTalk,” a discussion group about the coming out experience. Maxine Anderson ’10 leads biweekly coffee and dessert hours and next semester will also head a monthly discussion series called “Fruit Salad,” focusing on diversity in the queer community. In Spring 2007 Blegen produced the inaugural issue of Outlet, a literary publication about the exploration of sexuality related to LGBTQ discourse.

Despite the expansion of its programs and group collaborations, Blegen faces challenges, Silverstein says, including increasing the visibility of the center and persuading students to make the short trek over to the house. “Bringing students here for the first time” is important, Silverstein says. “Once they’re here, a lot of students realize it isn’t very far.” Edward Pittman ’82, associate dean of the college for campus life agrees. “It’s all relative,” he says. The location “forces the interns and [Silverstein] to work harder to be creative in the programming in terms of scheduling and time. It is always important to make the space accessible and build partnerships with others on campus.”

Students play card games at Blegen House
Students play card games at Blegen House

Blegen intern Stephanie Wozniak ‘08, seated center, leads a program at the house during freshmen orientation.

According to Pittman, a task force for LGBT quality of life on campus in the early 1990s recognized and petitioned for the need to create a cultural space for LGBT students. In 1993, Blegen House was established under the leadership of then-Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Rabbi Shirley Idelson. John Schoonbeck took over as part-time Blegen administrator a year later and played a critical role in creating the inclusive atmosphere of the house, building relationships with the faculty, and developing traditions and programs for over a decade.

In the 2003–04 academic year, Blegen was incorporated into the campus life model and the part-time Blegen administrator position was transformed into the full-time assistant director of campus life, who also serves on several campuswide committees. After Schoonbeck retired in Spring 2007, Silverstein was hired for the position.

While administrators and students have taken considerable measures to make Blegen an active presence on campus, Pittman acknowledges there are still difficulties for the LGBTQ community to overcome. “I think Vassar is in a broad way gay-friendly, but that doesn’t always mean the daily experiences of LGBTQ students aren’t fraught with challenges,” he says. “As time goes on, I think we will get better and [alleviate] some of those problems, and Blegen certainly plays a role. When we think of improving campus life, it’s not solely the responsibility of the administrator at Blegen, but of the entire campus.”