Four Antioch University Graduates Discover Their Authentic Selves.
by Kristen Forbes
What defines your identity? What makes you you? Does society get to decide who you are based on your name, gender, religion, or upbringing? What happens when elements change? What can we learn when someone’s identity is reborn?
In our cover story, we explore these questions by examining the personal awakenings of four extraordinary graduates of Antioch University. Each journey is unique, just as every identity is unique. Yet they’re all propelled by the same idea: we ultimately have the power to shape our own identities through our decisions.
How do people react when someone converts to an unfamiliar religion? How might a natural disaster help inspire someone to change her life? Can someone who spent years battling demons turn his life around and help others? Where’s the space for someone whose gender transcends the typical definitions of “male” and “female”?
These stories reflect not only the diversity of human experience, but also the wide range of individuals who choose to learn at Antioch University. After all, for many of us, being part of the Antioch University family is a large part of our identity. It’s what makes us us.
As someone who identifies as Two-Spirit/Queer, Qwo-Li Driskill embraces the idea of living between genders. The Native American concept Two-Spirit, as Driskill explains, “is an umbrella word in English that is inclusive of people in native communities and traditions that fall outside of European gender binaries.” This fluidity can be reflected in a person’s appearance, style of dress, modes of work, and forms of expression. It extends to language, as well. “I prefer gender-neutral pronouns,” explains Driskill, whose pronouns of choice are s/he and hir. “There’s no way anyone’s going to get it correct. They can call me Sir. They can call me Ma’am. Both and neither are true.”
Driskill was born and raised in a Cherokee family within a predominantly white, straight community in rural Colorado. Perceived as male by society, Driskill never felt that s/he fit into traditional gender boxes. S/he learned more about the concept of Two-Spirit in college, which ultimately gave hir the language needed to go beyond gender binaries. Driskill came out as gay after hir freshman year in college, a choice that was difficult “internally, emotionally. I made the decision to come out so that I didn’t kill myself.” As Driskill’s gender vocabulary expanded, s/he went from identifying as gay to queer and transgender, and found that visibly living outside societal gender norms often left others unsure of how to react. Once on a plane, a flight attendant tried to wake the longhaired Driskill by saying “ma’am” – until the sight of Driskill’s facial hair threw a curveball.
“[The attendant] got really flustered,” s/he recalls. “That kind of stuff happens at grocery stores, too. If you don’t fit into something they can pin down, they don’t really know what to say, because gender language is so much a part of people’s day-to-day conditioning.”
Driskill graduated from Antioch University Seattle with an MA in Whole Systems Design in 2001 and is currently developing the Queer Studies curriculum for the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies graduate program at Oregon State University. S/he knows that what for hir is simply a way of life comes across as a bold statement to others. “This ‘coming out’ moment gets talked about so much as sort of an essential part of people’s identities,” s/he reflects. “I understand that, but being Two-Spirit to me wasn’t a coming out. It was just part of who I am and how I’m going to present myself in the world.”
Hang Yin Candy Lo
For Hang Yin Candy Lo, sometimes words alone are not enough. A dancer and performer since childhood, Lo sees the world through a physical, visual lens. This explains the hole cut out of an illustration of the sky on her business cards. Lo is the founder of Piece of Sky, a creative arts therapy and counseling agency in her native Hong Kong. “Everyone should have their own piece of sky,” Lo explains.“Everyone’s dream should be different. Wherever you put the hole, that’s your piece of sky. Piece of Sky gives my clients – and me – a place to start, a place of potentials that can be fully developed.”
Although Lo had long recognized that dance could be therapeutic, she spent many years working strictly as a performer. In her mid-20s, while working as a vocalist at Hong Kong Disneyland, Lo began to rethink her priorities. “I was seeking, and I was at a low point,” she says. Around that time, in 2008, a massive earthquake in Western China killed roughly 70,000 people. “My very wise friend said, ‘You don’t realize how many people are striving to live,’” Lo recalls. “‘If you’re so much in doubt, give your life to them.’”This propelled Lo’s decision to attend graduate school at Antioch University New England to study dance/movement therapy and counseling, as well as drama therapy. She earned her MA in 2012.
Lo, who has lived in China, Belgium, England, and the United States, has learned that people are more alike than they are different. “Sometimes people will say, ‘I’m not a dancer. I’m not creative.’ As human beings, we’re all creative, actually. Every movement is dance. Life itself is creative. It’s just a matter of whether or not we’re aware or we acknowledge it,” says Lo.
Today, Lo says life is a balancing act between her various identities: small-business owner, child-life specialist at the Children’s Cancer Foundation, dance/movement therapist, and performer. As a person who thrives on being somewhere different every day, Lo says she feels “blessed, very blessed.”
Ben Murphy was a 20-year-old business major and athlete at San Jose State University when an injury ended his sports career and changed the trajectory of his life. After multiple surgeries and a lot of prescription pills, he was depressed. He turned to alcohol and drugs and dropped out of college twice.
This was the start of an eight-year battle. Murphy went to rehab several times, only to return to drugs. He wound up using crystal meth, “a drug that makes you so high, it’s like a pit bull gets a hold of your psyche and won’t let go,” says Murphy. He committed crimes, went to jail, and became a person his family and friends no longer recognized. He had an emotional breakdown and lost interest in everything he loved. He continued using drugs, including acid and ecstasy. He eventually overdosed.
Despite this wake-up call, Murphy was unable to handle the intense emotions that he felt when sober. “I would drink more again just to cover it all up. That’s really what addiction does. You get to the point where you’re in such denial about it,” Murphy explains.
Finally, he moved to a sober-living house in Santa Barbara, California, worked on a 12-step program, committed to sobriety, and found a mentor he related to. “He was a walking example that recovery was possible,” Murphy says. Inspired, Murphy enrolled in the drug and alcohol counseling program at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC). He finished the two-year program and transferred to Antioch University Santa Barbara, where he earned his BA in 2010 and his MA in Psychology in 2012. He is now a partner and coach at Thrive Wellness Coaching, as well as a certified addiction counselor and an MFT intern at SBCC’s counseling center.
Seven years sober, Murphy says his life, relationships, and personality have completely turned around. He’s channeled years of pain into helping others and never loses sight of his priorities. “My sobriety is the most important thing in my life,” he says. “If I don’t have that, I’ll lose everything.”
Jaskaram Kaur Khalsa
Jaskaram Kaur Khalsa wears her new identity on her sleeve, literally. She was born Mehgan Sepanik and raised Catholic by her Irish/German mother and Italian/Polish father in Elgin, Illinois. Once an adult, Khalsa’s struggle to find inner peace led her on a journey toward Sikhism that would change everything – her manner of dress, her name, and, most importantly, her psyche.
“2009 should have been a year I felt great and full of joy, but I found myself in a very low place,” says Khalsa, who completed her BA at Antioch University Los Angeles that year. “I said to the universe, ‘I am done playing with you. I am tired, and I don’t know what to do anymore.’ Then a beautiful friend of mine gave me a stack of Kundalini yoga mantras. I listened to them day and night: the most beautiful sounds I had heard. They touched the core of me. They became a life raft.”
Khalsa began studying Kundalini yoga with a teacher who was Sikh. She found herself drawn to the 500-year-old egalitarian religion, which Yogi Bhajan introduced to the U.S. – along with Kundalini yoga – in the late 1960s. Soon Khalsa was devoting herself entirely to Sikhism, despite fears that friends, family, and colleagues might not accept her. “When I started wearing a turban outside of the Kundalini yoga and Sikh community, the reaction was uncomfortable,” Khalsa acknowledges. “When I decided to own it and decided that this is who I am – a servant of the Guru – people responded very positively and respectfully.”
As part of her transformation, she took the name Jaskaram Kaur Khalsa and is in the process of legalizing this change. Jaskaram means “destiny of grace shining with God’s glory,” Kaur means “princess or lioness of God,” and Khalsa is a name typically given when a person is baptized as a Sikh.
The reaction to her new identity by the AULA community has been particularly warm, reports Khalsa, who now works as a staff associate in the Registrar’s Office and recently began teaching Kundalini yoga to other employees. “I remember the first time I wore white to work,” she says. “Oh my goodness, people loved it. This is when I understood the power and value of the dress and how it [can have] a positive effect on all those that see it.”