I was given the privilege to interview Sequoia Thompson, a non-traditional transfer student from the Inland Empire majoring in psychology and minoring in LGBTQ studies. Sequoia is an androgynous lesbian black woman, and is very engaged in queer and black advocacy both academically and in her personal life. Read below to learn about her 11 year gap from school, her positive experiences as a student and later an employee at Pasadena City College, her passion for her major and minor, her experience studying and doing research on queer communities of color in Holland, her work with UCLA’s LGBTQ center, her new internship at Point Foundation, and her goals and aspirations for the future, to give back to her community and get a doctorate in psychology.
11 year gap from school
Sequoia went to high school in the Inland Empire, then went to a community college in Rancho Cucamonga immediately after graduating. However, inadequate transportation forced to her make a difficult decision – whether she was going to continue to go to college, or work full time. She had to catch a ride to both school and work, and was unable to continue both working and being a full time student while depending of limited transportation options. She chose to work, dropped out of school, and started her career in transportation. This began her 11 year career in which she worked for Federal Express and later Union Pacific Railroad. In 2009 she was laid off, lost everything, and had to file for bankruptcy. In 2010 she began working for metro, and worked there for five years. She felt “stuck in the workforce, chasing that money.”
“None of these positions fed my soul. I always knew I wanted to go back to school.”
Sequoia used to drive line 2 for the metro and had her shift layover at UCLA, at Ackerman Student Union. She longed to go back to school, but thought to herself “it’s not like I could go to UCLA anyway.” Sequoia experienced a serious injury that changed her life; she developed tendonitis in her shoulder and was on disability for a year. During this year–long break from work, she decided to go back to school and take one class, which turned into three classes, and ultimately led to her decision in 2014 to leave her job for good and go back to school full-time. Though metro provided her with decent money and good benefits, she was unhappy in her career for a long time, and longed to pursue her passions.
Pasadena City College
When she went back to school, Sequoia attended Pasadena City College, believing “‘nothing else is going to make me happy, except for what I truly want to do.”
It was at PCC that Sequoia met her academic mentor, Doctor Jennifer Noble. Noble was Sequoia’s professor for the class ‘Psychology of the African American’.
“That class was liberating, to see so much scholarly knowledge that is aware of and addresses the issues in the African American community from so many levels. Especially for me, being a queer black woman, a lot of times [queerness] is left out of the african american narrative, it is very separate. [Noble] is very much an ally to the community, so she had a lot of inclusive material in the class. Not only was she talking about my culture, she was specifically talking about my individual experience. That class was like, ‘holy crap this knowledge thing is dope! I knew I would freaking love this!’”
Sequoia was able to be honest with Noble about her insecurities about going back to school as an androgynous black lesbian woman, as she feared she wouldn’t be embraced in the psychology community. Sequoia describes Noble as “the epitome of black excellence; gorgeous, successful, a professor of psychology, and a psychologist pursuing her own private practice.”
Sequoia went to PCC fully intending to transfer to Cal State Long Beach. This aspiration inspired her to work hard to get good grades, because the psychology department at Long Beach is highly competitive. “I didn’t want to go to UCLA. I didn’t think there would be black representation on campus, I didn’t think there would be queer representation on campus, I’m from the Inland Empire, and I wasn’t trying to live next to Bel Air.” She admits that her aspiration to go to Long Beach was partially because when she worked for the railroad, she lived in Long Beach. She wanted to return to a city she knew well, to “tuck my tail and rest.”
The transfer center at PCC convinced her to take a tour of UCLA’s campus before she made her final decision. They connected her to Denise Phelps, a peer mentor for UCLA’s Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP). “Denise showed me where the black people were, and where there are resources for us, and then she showed me the LGBTQ center that has a complete library of queer literature. And I realized there’s a space for me here for both of my very salient identities.”
After her tour of the campus, Sequoia had plans to get lunch with Dr. Noble and her past classmate Nikhita Bhardwaj (Niki). On her way to her lunch plans, she walked past her old bus stop.
“I was like, oh damn, I have to go to UCLA. I was right there [almost 8 years ago], almost in tears, thinking God, I need to go back to school.”
When I commented on this moment seeming like fate, Sequoia responded, “I don’t want to say we determine our fate, but we have the choice to allow the universe to let what is supposed to happen, happen.”
Why major in psychology?
Sequoia always knew that she wanted to study psychology, and feels that “psychology is the foundation of every single thing you can major in.” The only class that she took during her short period at community college in Rancho Cucamonga that transferred to Pasadena City College was Psychology 1, and she feels that the reason she was able to finish community college in two years is because she always knew what she wanted.
“It sucks that we live in a nation where psychology is not thought of as a valid science, and mental illness is not thought of as a valid illness.”
Sequoia is very passionate about counteracting this mentality, especially for queer black youth. She feels that queerness is othered in black american culture, and that “society doesn’t accept us, and our own people don’t accept us, so it’s often hard to find sense of self and where we fit in when we aren’t supported.” She calls being both black and queer a “double-whammy.”
Why minor in LGBTQ+ studies?
Originally, Sequoia intended to double major in both psychology and gender studies. She chose gender studies because she feels that gender stratification needs to be discussed more. Both masculine and feminine energies can be tapped into, and being androgynous/ having multiple gender presentations is separate from sexual orientation. She has conversations on this topic with her friends often because people recurrently inquire why she has a masculine energy but doesn’t want to be a man. She wanted to learn how to facilitate these conversations effectively for people who don’t know how to talk about it and/or didn’t have anyone to ask. When she found out about the LGBTQ minor, she said, “oh yes, please sign me up for that!”
“I could take classes that only talk about queer issues? Are you serious?? Like a whole class???? I was mind blown.”
Sequoia’s studies and research in Holland
By the time Sequoia got to UCLA, she felt burnt out from all the work she had done at PCC as a tutor, TA, and transfer student ambassador. So she decided to focus entirely on school, and not extracurriculars. However, she always checked her email, and received an email from AAP (Advanced Academic Programs) about a study abroad and research program in Amsterdam. At first she dismissed it, thinking it was too expensive for her. But when she saw it was all expenses paid, she immediately called a friend from PCC about it and found out that he was on the board. She then pitched to him her research idea:
“I want to research how the Netherlands colonial history effects queer people of color compared to how our colonial history effects queer people of color. Coming from a very liberal environment in LA, and going to visit my father in South Carolina, my experience is very different. I can only imagine the experience of queer people of color around the world. I want to see what our strengths, differences, and experiences are in order to create solidarity and a community of queer people of color on an international level.”
She applied, and was one of four students to embark on the six week program in Holland. She was scheduled to fly back to the US on July 29th. However, July 29th is the beginning of Pride Week in Amsterdam, and she felt that being at pride week would be incredibly helpful for her research. So she emailed the program coordinator and said:
“You can’t send me out here to research queer people of color, and there’s all these workshops and things happening this week, and you’re going to send me back? You have to let me stay one more week. Please. You don’t have to pay for it, you just have to switch the flight.”
Her request was approved, and she stayed an extra week crashing with a Hollander friend she had met during the program. She had a difficult time finding queer communities of color during the first two weeks. That is, until she started swiping on ‘Her,’ a dating app akin to tinder, but specifically for queer women. She messaged every woman of color inquiring about how to get connected in order to conduct her research. On ‘Her’, she met Verly and Gretchan, and they helped her connect with Pink Melanin, a private facebook group for queer women of color. She attended a BBQ organized by Pink Melanin, and was later invited to the organizers home to conduct a Facebook live post to share her interest and research. From then on she was able to connect to other queer community groups to conducting group discussions and interviews to continue her research.
Her research touches on white fragility in the US; the idea that America has gotten past the Jim Crow era and that racism no longer exists in our society, that we are no longer facing the residual effects of slavery. She juxtaposes the colonial eras of the US and Holland, because in the US colonization happened domestically, while in Holland colonization happened abroad. Because of this, citizens of Holland are far less aware of the racism that persists in their society. Sequoia is specifically interested about pre-colonial queerness in African and African American culture, as homosexuality is often seen as “the white man’s disease.”
“[Citizens of Holland] hear about [MLK, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X] from America because our voice has been so loud for so long, so it’s a really good foundation for many, and I think that’s what we have to bring to the table as far as support. What they have are so many cultures that are so connected to their roots. They are still immediately connected to their history. They know more about queerness that existed before colonization than [African Americans] do, because our whole history has been taken from us….We had queerness in Africa, queerness in India, we’ve had queerness everywhere before homosexuality was criminalized.”
If this topic interests you, Sequoia suggests reading “White Innocence” by Gloria Wekker.
Sequoia’s biggest aspiration is to create an international community of queer people of color called Queer People of Color Circle of Care. She was inspired by her studies and research in Holland to strive to create an international community of queer POC to support and educate each other. She believes that African Americans have experience and strength in advocacy and civil rights movements that they can share with the rest of the world, and queer POC abroad have cultural wealth that they have immediate access to that they can share with the African American community.
Inspired by her experiences in Amsterdam, Sequoia has begun to facilitate a discussion forum every other Monday morning at UCLA’s LGBTQ center. Her circle is called ‘QTPOC,’ which stands for ‘Queer and Trans People of Color.’ She wanted to be a part of a space where “whiteness is not the default.” She creates an agenda for each meeting, but tries to facilitate an open discussion on whatever the attendees feel they want to discuss. She always asks, “What would you like to get out of this space?”
Point Foundation Internship
Sequoia was required to get an internship for a queer studies course, LGBTQ 180SL, she took at UCLA. Through this class, she found Point Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships for queer students. Two years ago they created a community college portion, but no one on the staff had gone to a community college, so Sequoia came in to fill this role. It is comically ironic that Sequoia hadn’t discovered this organization two years ago when she began community college with the intention to transfer to a four year university.
Sequoia wants to go straight into a doctoral program to prepare for her dream job as a psychologist. However, she is now also interested in professorship due to her experiences at PCC as a tutor. Sequoia wants to represent both black and queer people in the discipline of psychology.
“I met many psychologists, and none of them looked like me…. I know how validating it is to see yourself. Someone who understands, not because they read about it in a book, but because they live that experience every single day. That power can expedite therapy, can make it even stronger.”