Story by: Sydney Gaines

“I want my students to see a reflection of themselves in the history that I teach,” says Renee Garris, humanities professor at Germanna. “I want to have a hand in erasing barriers and ensuring that equity is truly met.”

Professor Garris teaches a variety of humanities courses, ranging from women and gender studies, African Americans in humanities, and contemporary humanities.

“Teaching these courses is my own personal way of making certain that all of my students are seen and their voices are highlighted,” she says.

Professor Garris’s journey at Germanna started almost nine years ago, when her passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) called her to the community college setting.

“As someone who is truly dedicated to DEI, the community college was where I wanted to be. I felt like I could affect the most change here, empower students, and help them meet their goals.”

The moment she stepped onto Germanna’s campus, Professor Garris acted as an advocate for students, serving on faculty senate and sharing resources to help students in times of need.

For her, this commitment to advocacy has been lifelong.

Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Professor Garris always knew she had differing views from others in her traditionally conservative state.

“I grew up as a ballerina,” she says, noting that her time spent in dance and theater introduced her to all different types of people.  

So, when some of her immediate relatives identified as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, Professor Garris did not bat an eye. She accepted them just as they were. But she noticed the world around her did not have the same views.  

Being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community in the 1980s was not something that was widely talked about at that time. My friends and family who identified as members of this community felt a sense of embarrassment. And when the HIV AIDS epidemic began, that only intensified things. I had friends who were diagnosed with the illness unfortunately take their own lives due to the shame that society placed on them. And at that point, I knew I wanted to be an advocate and make sure that the people of this community felt supported.
Renee Garris
Professor of Humanities

Ever since, Professor Garris has been an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, actively supporting equal civil rights, gender equality, and other social movements. And she has raised her five children to have similar viewpoints.

“All of my children were raised in a household of acceptance and love. When they were growing up, they didn’t play with the toys conventional to their genders. My daughter played with dump trucks and Legos, and my twin boys played with kitchen sets. For us, we wanted our kids to develop naturally.”

Professor Garris shown with her daughter, Mia, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community
Professor Garris shown with her daughter, Mia, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community

Teaching at Germanna has shown her that this level of acceptance and understanding is not always the case for her students.  

“Sometimes, I’ll have students tell me their preferred name and pronouns, but they’ll say that their family doesn’t know. Or, I’ll have a student who is transitioning stop by my office just because they need someone to listen. I want students to know that no matter what they may be going through, I’m here for them, and I’m willing to provide whatever resources necessary.”

Professor Garris knows firsthand that this type of support in the classroom can go a long way.

“I didn’t have that kind of help,” she says. “None of my professors showed care when my grades began to slip or when I stopped performing the way I should’ve been.”

She recalls how during her undergraduate degree program at Auburn University, her mother fell ill, and she had to leave school after finishing her sophomore year.  

“I moved back to Mobile to care for my mom for a year, and then she passed. I took about 18 months off from school as a result,” she says.

Emotionally, Professor Garris was not in the space to go back to school and complete her degree. But she prevailed, and she finished her bachelor’s degree at the University of South Alabama. Though she initially intended to go straight into law school, her recent tragedy made her realize she wasn’t ready to commit. So, she packed up and moved to Poland, spending eight years in Europe as a businessowner.  

After her time spent traveling, Professor Garris decided to move back home and pursue her master’s degree at Spring Hill College. During this time, she faced a number of setbacks—infertility, invitro treatments, a gut-wrenching divorce, adjusting to life as a single parent.  

“It was tremendously stressful,” she says. “But I finished my degree, got back on my feet, got remarried, and realized that there was more that I wanted to accomplish.”  

Today, she is living her dream—teaching full-time and raising her five kids, while simultaneously pursuing a doctoral degree in philosophy from Gratz College.

“So, when my students say they’ve been through trauma in their lives, I’m always here to listen,” she says. “My non-traditional steps have helped me see students and understand their circumstances better. Not saying our journeys are the same, but I’ve walked my own path and can confidently say to them that it does get better. There will be dark days, but there’s so much help out there now that I didn’t have when I needed it.”

In her classes, Professor Garris makes sure to lead with grace and let her students know that her door is always open, no matter the circumstance.

There’s not a conversation I’m not willing to have with a student. Even if it’s something that is hard for me to talk about, I’m willing to have the conversation. When it comes to my students and what they’re going through, whether in class or at home, I’m always willing to be open to the conversation. I help anyone I can without judgement.
Renee Garris
Professor of Humanities

A true ally, Professor Garris hopes to continue providing representation of all genders, heritages, and sexualities alike, and being a safe space at the College.

“When the opportunity came for me to become an advocate at Germanna, it was never really a question for me. I’m willing to do whatever I can to let students know that they are loved, and that they are perfectly perfect no matter what.”

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