‘Meet A Deac’ is back

When people ask me why I love Wake Forest, it’s an easy answer: Wake was the perfect school for me. Most of the good things that have happened in my life (people I met, places I’ve been, my career, etc.) all emanate from Wake.

When people ask me why I have stayed at Wake as an administrator for 21+ years, it is also an easy answer: the people. The people of Wake Forest are extraordinary. Your students are bright and creative and their energy keeps me young. My colleagues are incredible: smart, caring, hard working, ethical. They make me a better person through what I learn from them.

So it is my great joy to resurrect what had been a regular feature of the Daily Deac in the early to mid-2010s. It is called Meet A Deac, and it is a short interview with administrators and faculty members who you might not know, but whose work has an impact on your students’ lives, or on how you engage with Wake Forest. Over the next several months, I will be periodically featuring some of these great campus partners in Meet A Deac. I hope you will enjoy these profiles. Today we will meet AJ Mazaris.

AJ Mazaris, the Assistant Vice President for Equitable Policy in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Director, LGBTQ+ Center at Wake Forest University, poses outside Reynolda Hall on Thursday, October 1, 2020.AJ, happy to have you here for our inaugural Meet A Deac for 2020-21! Let’s start by having you tell me your title and your educational background.
I’m the Assistant Vice President for Equitable Policy, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and Director, LGBTQ+ Center. I have a BA in English from Vassar [cool! I was an English major too!], an MA from Brown in Museum studies (I know, who knew?), and a Ph.D. from Brown in American Studies.

What was the subject of your dissertation? Now that I finished mine, I am nerdily interested in everyone else’s 🙂
LGBTQ history.

And how long have you been at Wake?
9.5 years.

So in laypersons’ terms, what do you do at Wake?
I run our LGBTQ+ Center, and provide education, advocacy, and support to our students, staff, and faculty around gender identity and sexual orientation. That support might look like one-on-one conversations about navigating the coming out process, helping students build community and feel connected through our Identity Spaces and other programming, or working with my advisees in our LGBTQ-inclusive Lower Division Advising program. In my AVP role, I work with partners across the institution to ensure that our policies and practices don’t have a disproportionately negative impact on our LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff.

COVID has changed all our work to some degree or other. How has your role been impacted? 
I currently serve on our Incident Management Team with you (and many others); as you know, we meet several times a week to operationalize our campus COVID response and ensure that no one is falling through the cracks. I also serve on the committee that made decisions about student COVID emergency funding requests, as well as the review committee that evaluates student requests to stay on campus. Additionally, I served on the committee that established our asymptomatic testing program. Through this, as well as lots of one-on-one outreach and work with students, COVID has meant that I’ve spent a lot of time making sure that folks are surviving, when this energy is usually spent on ensuring that students are THRIVING. LGBTQ+ students have faced particular impacts from COVID, especially those who don’t have a safe or supportive family home. Helping to identify those students and their needs, and then connect them with resources, has been a big part of my work this year.

Hugely important work too. Thank you. In normal times, what would you say you like best about working at Wake?
Hands down, my students. When I went to college (8 million years ago…) I experienced, for the first time in my life, being in a place where it was okay to be smart and weird and different. The experience of building community with a group of people who accepted me for exactly who I was, and shared my passion for making the world a better place, profoundly changed me, and I’m still grateful for it. I see my role at Wake as helping students build community, find their own passion and purpose, and have transformative learning experiences. It is such an honor – and such fun! – to get to be a part of students’ journeys in this way.

I could not agree with you more on that. What has been one of your toughest challenges during the pandemic?
Not being able to gather in person with our students. It turns out that many of our meetings and business functions can, in fact, be done remotely. We’ve even turned our educational workshops into excellent online classes. But nothing can replace the feeling of sitting around a circle with a group of students in the LGBTQ+ Center lounge, talking about their hopes and fears and dreams. I miss that profoundly.

Follow up question: what do you miss about normal times on campus?
I miss running into students on the Quad, in the hallways of Benson, or in the LGBTQ+ Center. The loss of spontaneous interactions and check-ins is hard because I miss people, but also removes another data point in assessing how people are doing.

So let’s talk about students – what advice would you give them if they asked?
Find the people and places where you can be your whole self, and nurture those relationships with care. And if you’re having trouble finding those spaces, check in with a staff or faculty member. There are so many people here who care about you, and are investing in helping you succeed, academically AND personally.

How about advice for families?
Your students will change during college. That’s okay. In fact, it’s really good, even if it can feel uncomfortable sometimes! Make sure they know that you will love them no matter what. (Also, read your WFU emails and listen to Betsy!)

Well said! Ready to pivot to my favorite part – the lightning round?

book cover - The Vanishing HalfBook you’re reading now: I just finished the novel The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, which was an incredibly nuanced exploration of race, gender, and identity, wrapped in a beautifully told story. I highly recommend it.

TV show/movie/Netflix you have been watching during the pandemic: Right now I am (finally!) watching Schitt’s Creek and loving it.

cherry garciaGuilty pleasure: Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia

Introvert or extrovert? Extrovert

Something most people don’t know about you: My father is from Greece, and though I grew up in the U.S., all of my family on that side (including my older sister and her husband and children) still live there. [Wow, I had no idea!]

What will be the first thing you do when the pandemic is over and we can live normal lives again? Hug my parents. Hug my students. Take my partner out to dinner in a restaurant. Sing with other people. Take my kids on an actual vacation.

Amen to all of that. Thanks for sharing yourself with us, AJ!


— by Betsy Chapman, Ph.D. (’92, MA ’94)

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