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In just a few years, PrideRx at VCU’s School of Pharmacy has become one of the nation’s most visible and active groups for LGBTQ+ student pharmacists and their allies. In this essay, PrideRx founder Olivia White, a fourth-year pharmacy student at the SoP, describes its creation. 

By Olivia White
Pharm.D. Class of 2022

I moved to Richmond in 2018 after graduating college, hoping to explore my identity and make more queer friends and connections. Growing up in a semi-rural part of Suffolk, Virginia, I had not had much exposure to the LGBTQ+ community, despite knowing since middle school that I was not straight.

Growing up gay or gender nonconforming (GNC) in a conservative community is difficult – growing up gay, GNC and neurodivergent even more so. Social skills and conversational timing are harder for me to grasp, and often would land me on the receiving end of bullying, reprimands and isolation. 

I went into college thinking that if I conformed to societal expectations by presenting more femininely, I might be happier and have more friends. Instead, along with a bachelor’s in neuroscience, I graduated college with depression, a worsened generalized anxiety disorder and no idea who I was supposed to be. 

After being accepted to VCU School of Pharmacy, I saw the move to RVA from rural Tidewater as another chance for change — this time, one that was more authentic to me

While diving into lesbian, GNC and other queer literature (much of it suggested by a lesbian creative writing professor), I cut most of my hair off and started dressing more in line with my own internal gender expression. I traded out maxi dresses for button-up shirts in the wildest patterns I could find. I no longer forced myself to wear makeup or remove every inch of my body hair. Despite these positive changes, I was still very nervous and uncertain of myself, desperate for a community to meld into. 

On the first day of my P1 year, I went up to the fifth floor of the Smith Building to quietly ask the school’s administrative office specialist, Orlantae “Tonto” Duncan, if there were any kind of LGBTQ+ group at the School of Pharmacy — I had seen him wearing a rubber rainbow bracelet during orientation. Tonto replied, “No, but you could make one!” 

I immediately declined. I was not confident I would be able to pull off something that bold. 

I attended group therapy with the Rainbow Group on VCU’s mostly undergraduate Monroe Park Campus for a few sessions but stopped going since it was not geared towards graduate students. Then I attended meetings at Practice with Pride, a new discussion-based LGBTQ+ circle for VCU health-science students — only to realize that I was the only student there from the School of Pharmacy. 

Still, Practice with Pride was more in line with what I needed, and Tonto’s encouragement had stayed with me: There needed to be something similar for LGBTQ+ students at the School of Pharmacy. 

Talking with Practice with Pride’s founder Howe Wang, then with Lauren Caldas, Pharm.D., an associate professor and my CPD mentor at the time, and the School of Pharmacy’s director of student success, Victoria Keel, Ph.D., gave me the encouragement I needed. 

After gaining more organizational techniques and confidence through the Gayheart Leadership Development Program, I was finally able to get the ball rolling. 

Starting a student group in 2020 was difficult: We had one in-person interest meeting in February 2020, with alum Chelsey Llayton, Pharm.D., as speaker, before everything went virtual. 

We persevered. With the help of one of my classmates, Joey Hunt, we assembled an executive board of fellow Pharm.D. students. We recruited for and hosted regular general body meetings completely virtually, through email list-servs, social media posts, Google Forms, and Zoom. 

From left: Olivia White at a demonstration and at a Pride event; a PrideRx philanthropy event for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.

That first PrideRx exec board was one of the most motivated and impassioned groups I have worked with to date. We took the original idea of creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ folks at VCU School of Pharmacy and added an educational component for students passionate about LGBTQ+ healthcare and inclusivity. 

We have hosted amazing speakers from the fields of solid-organ transplant and community pharmacy, as well as practitioners from Planned Parenthood and Health Brigade. Tonto has made an appearance to tell his story as well! We also have collaborated with the Student National Pharmaceutical Association’s Remember the Ribbon committee, the VCU chapter of the College of Psychiatric and Neurologic Pharmacists, and The Capsule, the School of Pharmacy’s student-run newsletter. 

I started PrideRx primarily to create a visible and safe space for myself and other members of the LGBTQ+ community in the VCU School of Pharmacy. I am now the P4 representative for the group and so proud of how much work the current exec board is putting into making LGBTQ+ history at VCU School of Pharmacy! 

For more, follow PrideRx on Instagram. Categories Student news, Student organizations
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