08:26 AM

Student's Perseverance, Courage Lead to PFLAG Award

By Tim Meehan

Cal State San Marcos will have a contingency of students and support staff walking in July’s San Diego Pride Parade for the first time since 2019.

There will many returners representing CSUSM. A mixture of ages and cultural backgrounds will show the campus’ diversity.

One of the newcomers this year will be Ashton Lawson, a rising senior who is double majoring in sociology and women, gender and sexuality studies.

The smile has barely left their face since receiving the invitation. The excitement in their voice is palpable, a combination of nervous excitement and anticipation of a life-changing event.

Their journey to get there is one of perseverance, courage and relying on the kindness of others to walk with you through life’s most difficult challenges.


First steps

Growing up transgender in a family unit that didn’t know what that meant or entailed was confusing at its best, suffocating at its worst, and Lawson didn’t have much support at home either emotionally or academically.

School was often a struggle. Lawson’s parents talked about going to college but there were no concrete discussions or steps made to get there.

Lawson knew they weren’t heterosexual at a young age. Their gender didn’t feel right. There was nobody in their inner circle to assure them their feelings were valid, their inquiries were healthy.

“I was actually forced to come out quite a few times for different reasons,” Lawson said. “I don't like to lie, and I don't like to hide things. So when someone asks me something, I'm very transparent. And so that happened a lot growing up. I just never felt like I had a choice to just express and be within myself.”

At Mission Vista High School in Oceanside, Lawson said not that many students were out. The space that facilitates coming out comfortably didn’t exist in their mind.

They lost friends after coming out. A few stuck around but many didn’t know how to act. Their best friend didn’t become their best friend until after high school when they each came out.

Directionless and uninspired, Lawson decided to give community college a go.

Nearby Palomar College was the destination, but that challenge was nowhere near easy. Failure came at nearly every turn, which included changing potential majors eight times.

In one of their final academic advising appointments, the adviser asked a simple question: What do you want to do?

“I was like, ‘I don't know, I kind of just want to help make the world a better place for people,’ ” Lawson said. “It was just funny because from that she suggested sociology. Being able to be exposed to this field that really does look at people and look at how society is. Sociology really does try to work to make living everywhere better for everyone in the way that they need.

“Having a motivation and dealing with all of these not-great things that I was personally dealing with, other people shouldn't have to go through that. If I have to do something, I might as well do something that's going to also help other people’s lives.”


A mentor and a safe space

When Lawson arrived at CSUSM after six years in and out of Palomar, they wanted to quit again.

It was a whole new world of responsibilities, intimidating class sizes and a social construct they were unfamiliar with.

But just when their faith in the journey was being tested, along came a place and a person. Both would change Lawson’s life forever.

Robert Aiello-Hauser is a lecturer and the director of student engagement and inclusion at the LGBTQA Pride Center. They were teaching a course titled gender and sexuality in pop culture and media in fall 2019 when a quiet transfer student tried to blend in without standing out.

Aiello-Hauser was transparent about being non-binary, the same identity as Lawson. It didn’t take more than a few personal encounters before Lawson figured this was the inspiration they had been waiting their entire life for.

A light bulb went on.

“Being in that class really opened my eyes that I can be really out and proud and advocate for other people who may not have the privilege to do that,” Lawson said.

Aiello-Hauser encouraged them to apply for a job as a peer educator and administrative assistant at the Pride Center on campus after they were already a volunteer. When the pandemic hit, they messaged Lawson all summer, keeping them in the loop about the plans to reopen.

When Lawson grew frustrated and wanted to quit the center and school, which came at the same time they stopped talking to their parents, Aiello-Hauser provided the strength when Lawson felt weak.

“Ashton is the epitome of why I do what I do,” Aiello-Hauser said. “Assisting a student on their identity journey in finding their best self and seeing them empowered is the biggest reward. And then seeing how they want to give back to the community and ensure folks have a great experience by being that role model is the biggest reward. I know it’s not easy and there have been bumps in the road, especially with COVID and taking a semester off, but they have persevered.”

Said Lawson: “I wouldn't be here now I don't think if it wasn't for Robert.”