INDIANAPOLIS — As a junior, Jennifer Emery sat in multiple meetings with IUPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar, and they discussed steps the Indianapolis-based university could take to help LGBT students, a topic she could not have imagined a couple years earlier.
Because as a freshman entering IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) Emery had told just three people about her sexual identity and was scared to tell anyone else.
But at the freshman Involvement Expo, she saw a rainbow flag and signed up for emails from the LGBT student organization — after making sure none of her cross country and track teammates were around.
“I was super scared at that first meeting, but nobody was judging me,” Emery said of the LGBT group. “I wasn’t scared to be me, and I wasn’t scared to talk about my partner. … They were there for me when other people couldn’t be and when other people wouldn’t understand some things.”
Emery, who identifies as bisexual, became committed to the LGBTQ Student Alliance, which has allowed her to leave a legacy at IUPUI that goes beyond running. As a junior, she was elected the LGBTQ Student Alliance vice president, and this year as a senior, she became its president.
As vice president, she served on a five-person committee that met regularly with Paydar in 2015-16 to improve the campus for the LGBT community. They discussed several topics, but the two major results were input on the creation of an LGBTQ+ Center — a room within the Multicultural Center that opened in August — and changing the signs on single-toilet restrooms across campus to say “all gender restrooms.”
“The chancellor got all these emails from furious parents, but he didn’t care,” Emery said. “He knew that this was something that we needed and something that would help us succeed.”
Emery’s other work with the LGBTQ Student Alliance included helping coordinate the annual drag show, starting an annual AIDS memorial lantern lighting, and putting on the annual Harvey Milk Dinner.
“As chancellor of IUPUI, I seek out student leaders with whom I can work to create positive changes on campus,” Paydar said in a statement. “Jennifer Emery stood out as one of those leaders, especially in her work with the IUPUI LGBTQ Student Alliance. What makes Jennifer even more impressive is that she is able to balance her campus leadership with her performance as a student athlete.”
In October 2015 at the Harvey Milk Dinner, she received the Stonewall Award for her engagement and contributions to the IUPUI LGBT community.
“I just hope that the things I accomplished while I was here are appreciated,” Emery said.
She did all this LGBT work in addition to running cross country and track.
Emery, who holds the third fastest 5,000-meter time in school history (17 minutes, 36.88 seconds), came out to her team midway through her freshman year.
“The majority of the team was pretty chill about it, but there were a few people that were not so great about it,” Emery said of coming out. “My other teammates talked to them one-on-one and were like, ‘She’s your teammate. You need to deal with this.’ ”
Emery, who is talking for the first time about her experience as an LGBT athlete, said any teammates that expressed qualms initially about an LGBT teammate didn’t show further hostility.
Injuries have plagued her cross country career. The 5-foot-2, 100-pound Emery was only healthy enough to compete in postseason meets as a sophomore. The cross country coach named her the most improved runner that season.
For track and field, the coaches named Emery the most improved runner as a junior, when she cut almost 44 seconds from her 5,000-meter personal record and finished 11th in the 10,000 meters at the Summit League conference meet.
This track season, a calf injury caused Emery to miss most of April, but she plans to run the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the Summit League meet, which takes place Thursday to Saturday in Fargo, North Dakota.
“It’s my last season. I’m not going to stop running unless something hurts,” Emery said. “I’m kind of nervous going in (to conference). … I know the 10K. The 10K and I are good friends. I’m not worried about the 10K, but more the 5K.”
Emery, who is 21, is leaving IUPUI with a computer science degree after she graduates Sunday, and she has accepted a software engineering job with Raytheon in her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“If somebody my freshman year would have said that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I would tell them that they’re crazy,” Emery said. “I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted to do (as a freshman). … It’s been great. I would have never pictured leading a student organization. I never would have pictured myself talking to the chancellor or advocating for students in the ways that I have.”