Montana State University

MSU student’s pursuit of social justice leads to Newman Civic Fellowship

April 10, 2015 -- MSU News Service

Montana State University student Alex Paterson, who has fought to see MSU and Bozeman become places that embrace equality, inclusion and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer identifying people, recently became a Newman Civic Fellow. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University student Alex Paterson, who has fought to see MSU and Bozeman become places that embrace equality, inclusion and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer identifying people, recently became a Newman Civic Fellow.

The Newman Civic Fellows Award goes to student leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to finding solutions for challenges facing communities across the country. Ariel Donohue, program manager for MSU’s Diversity Awareness Office, said Paterson truly exemplifies the dedication to social change that this award champions.

“He has always been willing to stand up for social justice issues,” Donohue said. “His actions really speak to what he stands for. I’ve never been to a meeting where Alex didn’t step up and say, ‘what can I do?’”

A junior from Salt Lake City majoring in economics, Paterson has served as president and mentor to MSU’s Queer-Straight Alliance. In 2014 he successfully lobbied the student government to throw its voice behind a Bozeman city ordinance protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He led fellow students on a door-knocking campaign to rally support for the ordinance, helping collect 5,000 signatures from Bozeman residents.

Though embracing himself as a both a gay man and an advocate has been a struggle at times, Paterson said.

“It’s a civil rights issue, as a gay man, and it’s difficult but it’s so important to stand up and fight when someone belittles your humanity based on bigotry and hatred,” he said.

Paterson said he discovered a community ready to help him through some emotionally trying times.

“I only came out of the closet a few months prior to joining the campaign” to pass a non-discrimination ordinance, Paterson said. “It was a tumultuous time in my life, but people were so supportive – people like Ariel Donohue and Kiah Abbey and so many others…. it empowered me to fight for my community.”

Abbey, an MSU graduate and former student body president, wrote a letter supporting Paterson’s nomination as Newman fellow, saying he showed his commitment and leadership in the face of bigotry by stepping forward to organize a response when members of the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay hate group, announced in 2013 they planned to demonstrate on the MSU campus.

“Alex is the epitome of the servant leader willing to not just listen but truly hear, provide constructive opposition when necessary and step up when the less than glamorous tasks must be done,” Abbey wrote.

Paterson’s passion to serve his community didn’t diminish once the Westboro contingent returned to Kansas and Bozeman's nondiscrimination ordinance was passed into law. He said he hopes MSU will embrace dedicating a center for LGBTQ students, and he is already working to start a peer-mentoring program to provide support for that community.

Donohue said the work Paterson is doing to impact the MSU community beyond his stay on campus is what distinguishes Paterson and makes him so deserving of this award.

“One of the award requirements of the Newman fellowship is that the student is leaving a lasting legacy,” Donohue said. “And this award is so prestigious in part because Newman Civic Fellows are nominated by (university) presidents and chancellors in recognition of leadership that helps foster positive change.”

Donohue said MSU President Waded Cruzado’s endorsement of Paterson as a Newman fellow spoke to his work ethic and passion for achieving social change and earning the “trust of students, faculty, staff and community members alike” in the process.

Newman Civic Fellowships are given in memory of Frank Newman, who dedicated his life to creating systemic change through broadening opportunities for diverse and economically challenged students.

Contact: Ariel Donohue, (406) 994-5801, ariel.donohue@montana.edu.