Four years ago, Zachariah Alvarado ’23 was initially attracted to Wabash because of the financial aid support, small classes, compassionate professors.
The biggest draw to the small liberal arts college, however, was its community.
The diverse student and faculty population — ranging in race, sexual orientation, cultural and social background, etc. — was something different compared to the makeup of Alvarado’s hometown.
“Being around people from all over the world was very refreshing,” explained Alvarado. “I felt like Wabash presented me with the opportunity to really explore and to discover who I really wanted to be.”
Self-discovery didn’t come easy for the psychology major and education studies and English double minor.
“My freshman year was all over the place,” he said. “I wanted to fit in and make friends, but the reality was I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged. I felt alone.”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone on campus to quarantine. Alvarado used that time to reflect and refocus on what he wanted the rest of his college experience to be like.
“Coming to terms with who I really was, that was a lot to deal with and accept,” explained Alvarado, who came out as gay.
“I was scared,” he said. “Where I grew up, you were immediately shunned if you were openly gay. You lost friends. You lost family members. You lost any social capital you had in the community. It was looked at as being a bad thing.”
Alvarado experienced some of those hardships as a result of coming out. Because of that, he was unsure what to expect and worried when he arrived back on campus his sophomore year.
He credits faculty, like Assistant Professor of English Elan Justice “EJ” Pavlinich, for helping him not only persevere but thrive as his authentic self for the next two years.
“Dr. Pavlinich has been a guru for me. He was very helpful with how to navigate college as a gay student,” Alvarado said, adding that Pavlinich, who serves as ’shOUT’s advisor, encouraged him to get involved with the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, ally student organization.
“I was really energetic when I first discovered ’shOUT,” Alvarado said. “It was really nice to finally accept this part of myself and do something with it.”
In celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month in October, Alvarado participated in ’shOUT’s first ever Chapel Talk dedicated to queer history and identity. He shared his story and spoke on the importance of recognizing LGBTQ+ identities at Wabash College.
“In my experience, members of the faculty have been my greatest supporters since coming out. Their offices are my safe spaces. My professors have shown me respect, understanding, kindness, gratitude, and patience, and I am all the better for it,” Alvarado said in his 2021 Chapel Talk. “Current students, whom I am proud to call my friends, have taken the time to understand me and what being gay really means. That is a kindness I am grateful for, but was not familiar with for seven dreadful years.
“I first realized I was gay when I was 12 years old, but I did not accept it until I was 19,” Alvarado continued. “Seven years of personal torment tore me apart terribly, but the help and guidance of those with me now has made putting me back together a fun journey.”
A few months after his talk, Alvarado became co-president of ’shOUT and spent much of his tenure revitalizing the organization, which had previously lost momentum in membership and visibility on campus.
In addition to holding regular meetings, ’shOUT has also hosted a number of events under Alvarado’s leadership ranging from open houses and drag shows to Q&A discussions on the importance of safe spaces across campus, all aimed at promoting LGBTQ+ health, inclusion, and visibility.
Another priority for the group was reconnecting with alumni. With that in mind, Alvarado helped organized an annual alumni dinner.
“I was thanked by a lot of people for that dinner, I even got some alumni who were surprised that this group was still here,” Alvarado said. “Many said, ‘When I was a student, there were only like two people out and involved,’ and I replied, ‘I know. We’re still here!’”
Hawk Ricketts ’23, a Classics major and religion minor, said he’s proud of the growth he’s seen in his best friend and the impact he’s had on campus over the years.
“One of the things that I admire the most about him is his willingness to learn and change,” Ricketts said. “The Zach you see today is not the same Zach that came in freshman year. He’s a completely different person, and it's all for the better.
“He’s become such an outstanding leader who stands up for others and what he believes in,” he said. “He also actively goes out of his way to make sure that others feel supported, which is something not a lot of people do.”
Pavlinich echoed Ricketts and said he’s been impressed by Alvarado’s leadership in ’shOUT and for his advocacy.
“Representation is really important, and Zachariah has helped manifest a lot of that,” Pavlinich said. “There are a lot of students, even faculty and staff, who aren't comfortable being their authentic selves. I think they're getting that message of support by seeing representation proudly on display across campus.”
Since discovering himself, Alvarado said he’s worked hard to be a friend and guide to other LGBTQ+ students.
“I needed mentors like Dr. Pavlinich to help keep me at Wabash,” Alvarado said. “I want everyone to feel accepted, safe, and like they belong and have the ability to be whoever they want to be.”
Alvarado plans to attend graduate school to study developmental psychology and/or education policy. He is interested in teaching or working for a nonprofit organization that supports education.