Expelled Gay College Student Battles for Withheld Transcripts
Thanks to an online petition, the plight of a young woman expelled from her university for her sexuality, has not only made headlines, but has since brought into focus the anti-gay discriminatory practices some private universities use in the name of religion.
In 2011, Danielle Powell was a student at Grace University, a private Bible college in Omaha, Neb., whose website proclaims the institution has "a long-lasting reputation of developing servant leaders for the home, the church and the world through excellence in biblically-integrated education."
"I attended Grace University for three and a half years," recalls Powell, "and in my last semester before graduation I found myself in a relationship with another female student and fell in love with her. I was as surprised as anyone else that I fell in love with a woman. I had never identified as a lesbian previous to that. But it was what it was."
The two women, then on a study program in Jackson, Miss., were not so naïve as to think that a fervently Christian Bible college would welcome, much less accept, gay students. While it was agreed to keep the relationship a secret, what could not be avoided was the fact that the student with whom Powell became involved was already engaged to a man.
"We wanted it to be a monogamous relationship and he deserved to know the truth," Powell says.
But jilted fiancés are rarely quiet about it; he in turn went to a Grace priest staff member, who told Powell and her girlfriend to expose their relationship to the university herself or he would do it for them.
"Essentially, we were suspended," says Powell.
Yet Powell chose to work towards readmission, and was in fact successful in doing so. Grace did not seem particularly offended at the time, and in her research, Powell tells how she found the Grace policy on homosexuals in the student manual to be restricted to one sentence embedded in a larger section explaining the schools code of conduct with regards to premarital sex. "It was very vague," she recalls.
But the university’s sunny façade proved to be just that: Two days before Powell was to register for classes, she was contacted by her mentor, who informed Powell she had been asked by Grace staff if Powell was still in any way involved with her girlfriend. The school was in effect doing a background check on Powell to determine if she was "still" a lesbian and the mentor told Powell university’s officials would ask her directly in the coming days.
"That never happened," Powell states. Instead, she said she got an email from Grace Vice President Michael James a day before she was to start classes. "Basically they said that after I was readmitted, they tried to check with other members and faculty to ensure everyone was comfortable with my return. The prevailing opinion was that my intentions seemed to have been insincere, if not deceitful."
Powell, who started an on-campus homeless outreach program, was expelled on the grounds the university could not establish Powell’s "moral" character. Ten months later, after no contact from Grace staff, Powell discovered she had an outstanding balance of $6,000 for the semester she didn’t finish, an amount she obtained via a scholarship based on her ethnicity (Powell is African-American). Due to her financial situation, she could not pay the amount, and because of that, Grace withheld her transcripts, preventing Powell from transferring to another university to finish her education.
"I started this petition to demand justice for my wife and to shed light on Grace University’s discriminatory disciplinary system. Depriving a student of an education and financial aid because they are in a same-sex relationship is bullying at its finest," says Michelle Rogers (not Powell’s first partner), who launched the campaign on Change.org. "Furthermore, it’s unconscionable that they would then charge $6,000 dollars after rescinding her earned scholarship. We have experienced too much shame and rejection from an institution who claims to operate out of ’Grace.’"
With the petition, the situation quickly devolved into a war of words; after the Huffington Post and the local KETV network interviewed Powell over her expulsion, Grace quickly reached out to both outlets to state that the money Powell owed was federal aid, a statement contrary to the e-mail sent to Powell from Grace president Michael James and obtained by EDGE where he plainly states: "...your balance due is the result of scholarships that were revoked..." James continually refers to the tuition as "scholarships" and makes no reference to federal aid of any sort.
Powell’s increased visibility and her grace under pressure drew the attention of Lesley D. Slavitt of Roosevelt University in Chicago, who called Powell "a young woman of conviction who is committed to justice," and offered waived tuition so Powell could complete her term. While currently considering the standing offer, Powell admits to the difficult logistics with her wife attending school and working at an Omaha hospital. Nevertheless, Powell affirms she was deeply touched.
Additionally, as a matter of principle, Powell does not want any other entity paying for her final semester.
"Financial aid, for me, was the only reason a college degree was a viable option out of high school," Powell said. "This is true for many other individuals as well. So, if I am working toward true justice, I cannot adhere to that by paying Grace money for a semester in which I feel they unfairly charged me. I have to exhaust every other possible option before I can consider those offers."
Powell also drew the eyes of Omaha AM radio personality and yellow journalist Chris Baker, who invited her for an interview. Baker, who on his site proclaims "all trannies are mental patients," brought up the Roosevelt offer, hinting that Powell should settle and walk away from the petition. Then Baker suddenly brought in Grace president Michael James James halfway through Powell’s interview. James did say he would release Powell’s transcripts, but then forwarded only a student copy, not the official version needed for a transfer.
"Future transcripts may require settlement of the outstanding balance," James said, bringing Powell back to where she started. Such spite has only further battered Powell’s her own beliefs.
"My faith has always been a very foundational part of who I am," Powell says. But she continues, "It’s shaken, yes, but broken, no. I still identify as a Christian. My belief has always been very personal, and not based upon the actions of people who proclaim to be doing his work. My relationship with the God I was raised to believe in has definitely been redefined."
Roger’s petition has drawn over 114,000 signatures, all of which are sent directly to Grace University and Michael James.
"My hope," Powell tells EDGE, "is that through shedding light on discriminatory policies still backed by the law, we can be a catalyst for chance and a face for the many who have been treated unfairly, and will be in the future."