October-November 2019: Danushi Fernando
This month’s community spotlight is on Danushi Fernando, Director of LGBTQ and Gender Resources. She’s a recent first-time mother with one bachelor’s degree, three master’s, and endless wisdom, vulnerability, and compassion to share.
I spent my time with Danushi learning about her experiences, values, and motivations, and it was a real joy to see that side of her. Beyond the role she holds at Vassar, Danushi has many other tricks up her sleeve. On weekends she offers therapy sessions, often feeling recharged by the opportunity to help others put together the jigsaw pieces of their lives. She was recently published by an LGBTQ organization in Sri Lanka, writing about mental health and what it means to be queer in a country where it is a criminal offense. She told me shocking and sweet stories about pregnancy and parenthood, and that she has a dream of getting a Ph.D. studying the neuroscience of trauma.
I asked Danushi what calls her to the work she does now at Vassar. Having studied and worked in many different fields and in different parts of the country, Danushi returned to diversity and inclusion work after the 2016 elections and a charged encounter with the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. While near the U.S.-Canada border, ICE boarded Danushi’s bus, demanded to see her papers, and threatened to detain her. The incident, while traumatic, also energized her—she knew something had to change, and that she needed to be a part of it. Now, in her work at Vassar, she does that by equipping students with the skills and resilience they need to be sustainable agents of change, providing moments of challenge and opportunities for growth whenever she can.
Danushi told me a personal story about her long journey to Vassar, which began when she was 17 years old and back home in Sri Lanka. When she was applying to colleges, she recognized Vassar as a place where she could explore her own identities more, and was eager to become a part of it. Danushi recounts the disappointment and self-doubt she felt when she was waitlisted. There’s a happy ending, though, because several years, degrees, and jobs later, a position at Vassar opened up. She was open and vulnerable during her interviews, and she even worried that she had been too honest. Danushi remembers getting a call from Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement, Wendy Maragh Taylor, and being shocked to receive an offer. She couldn’t believe that she was going to work at a place like Vassar, and began crying when she arrived on campus. Now, nearly a year later, she says she is “finally beginning to feel worthy of being a part of this community.” I assured her that not only is she worthy; she is a gift to us all at Vassar.