Graduate student profile: Bethany Howe, student, teacher, transgender activist

Story by Aaron Weintraub

SOJC Ph.D. student Bethany Grace Howe marches alongside a half-million fellow protesters at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20.

Before Bethany Grace Howe became a Media Studies Ph.D. student in the SOJC, she was a high school teacher for many years. In the SOJC and across campus, Howe is known for her off-the-cuff sense of humor, empathy and boundless energy. All  of these things help her connect with students and make them comfortable.

Today, she says one of her main duties as a graduate teaching fellow is bridging the gap between the faculty and students, as she is a student herself.

“I think effective teaching is effective teaching. The secret to it is what one of my favorite former colleagues used to call being a ‘warm demander,’” said Howe.  “That means that you have demands and you have expectations — you set high expectations and continually push them towards that — but you do it with kindness, you do it with compassion.”

It’s a teaching style Howe has used regularly to help students with projects. “I teach [the Gateway to Media series], and we get a lot of students where this is the first ‘non-A’ they’ve gotten in a long time,” she said. “It just means that you’re obstinate when it comes to teaching, but you’re compassionate when it comes to how you do it.”

A big transition

A little over a year ago, Howe decided to come out as a transgender woman and begin the difficult process of transitioning. It was a crucial decision that had weighed on her for some time.

“I started here in the fall of 2015 very much thinking about [coming out], but hadn’t decided. But once I started here, I decided,” acknowledged Howe. “I lived with a lot of fear about what I was going to do, because there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that I was going to do it. I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t. But I had just gotten a fellowship to a great university. Was I about to blow it out of the water? There were so many variables that were unknown.”

Howe decided to pursue support from then-SOJC Assistant Professor Laurie Honda. After that initial conversation, she came out to the rest of her colleagues in an unconventional manner — via mass email.

“I went into her office and just told her everything, and she just held my hand as we went through it,” said Howe. “But the truth is, it’s terrifying to tell just one person. If you tell 75-85 people in an email, in some sick, twisted way that’s less scary. At least for me it was.”

While she wasn’t expecting a backlash, Howe was still taken aback by the amount of support she got following her announcement. “The interim dean at that point, Professor [Julianne] Newton, wanted to know what I thought, wanted to know what we could do to make the school better, and she gave the me the tools to do it,” Howe said.

In January, Howe was one of nine students across the UO campus awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Diversity and Inclusion, which recognizes professors and faculty who have gone above and beyond to ensure a safe learning environment for students of all backgrounds and values. Photo by Emma Oravecz.
In January, Howe was one of nine students across the UO campus awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Diversity and Inclusion. Photo by Emma Oravecz.

Culture of diversity

A few months after coming out, Howe founded and presided over the UO chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. And over the past year, she’s used her identity to ensure that the struggles of students from all kinds of backgrounds are recognized.

Howe recently won the Best Student LGBTQ Paper award from the International Communication Association. Her study detailed the intricacies of internal public relations and how certain strategies can help organizations reach out to employees who are transgender or identify as LGBTQ.

“That [paper] was actually the result of what Interim Dean Newton and I talked about, because all I knew was that this place was extraordinary and I wanted to know why,” Howe said. “I wanted to know why this place was so good for me even when other places might not be, even on this campus. That’s a huge question, of course.”

The primary sources Howe cited in her paper included her own experience coming out at the UO as well as the employee policies of Fortune 500 companies around the nation.

“All it really comes down to is: You have to have a culture of diversity. You can’t just make it up. But also you communicate with what’s called symmetrical communication, and that’s really the cornerstone of everything,” Howe said. “Because where there is no communication, there is a vacuum, and we all know what happens with a vacuum. In the end, it sucks.”

Making a difference

Howe’s experience with students, her work as a scholar and teacher, and her efforts to make Allen Hall and the University of Oregon accepting communities were all factors that helped her win the 2017 UO’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Diversity and Inclusion in January.

It was a big week for Howe. The day after receiving the MLK award, she flew to participate in the Women’s March in Washington to stand in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of women.

“I was there with a half-million of my closest friends — and by closest, I mean we were literally pressed up against each other,” she said. “What I enjoyed the most about it was I was on the organizing community, and we made an insane effort to make sure that this march was intersectional. There wasn’t just the same collection of privileged feminists.”

While Howe has certainly been busy over the past year, most days of the week she can be found on the third floor of Allen Hall or in the atrium. She believes office cubicles are leeches of the soul, and she likes to be available for students.

In the next two years, Howe hopes to complete her Ph.D. while continuing to make a difference in Allen Hall and beyond.

Ed Madison and I are working on what’s called the Journalistic Learning Initiative, which I would like to see grow and develop,” she said. “I think it can literally be a changing force in education, which is what I came here to do.”

Howe also has a vision for creating in the SOJC what she calls the Randy Shilts Chair and Center for Empowering Diverse Voices. “When I make a list of the things that would need to be accomplished for that, the hurdles are staggering,” she admitted. “But I just think we can do it. If I walk out of here and the Randy Shilts Center and JLI are functioning and thriving, I’ll be pretty happy.”

Aaron Weintraub is a senior in the SOJC studying journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is his first year working as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. He has also served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine. You can find Weintraub’s collection of photography, much of which he took while traveling, at When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.