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Safe Spaces: What They Look Like, Professors Who Help Create Them

Class selfie
Class selfie
Lorena Salcedo-Watson joined in the fun at one of her traditional end-of-semester student photo shoots, at their request.

“By their simplest definition, ‘safe spaces’ are those places where people feel they can be who they are.”

That’s what Smita Majumdar Das, executive director of Behavioral Health and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), said recently, adding that Stony Brook University is working to create those spaces for students everywhere possible. In rooms that emanate peace, tranquility and inclusion, through mental health and wellness resources, and through professors who go above and beyond to create those sanctuaries for students in warm, welcoming, respectful classroom environments. 

With May recognized as National Mental Health Awareness Month, here is a sampling of caring professors across campus working hard to make their spaces safe for all their students. Share your story with us at strongertogether@stonybrook.edu.


“In my lectures, I always try to remind students that they have me, and the graduate TAs and the undergraduate TAs to reach out to for any help at all. In my written assignments, I encourage them to use their own voices and share their feelings. This is especially important in my Sociology of Drugs and Alcoholism class, where we hear from those in recovery. The impact of listening to the stories of those who have struggled — and who talk about their own shame — is very powerful to the students.”

Catherine Marrone, advanced senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies, Department of Sociology

Safe space chorale
The Stony Book Chorale right before the Spring 2023 concert at the Staller Center. “You’re my hope for the world and the reason I do this,” Shoshanna Hershkowitz told the singers.

“Singing is a physical and emotional act, and it can raise deep feelings. I strive to make the choir room a place where it is safe to explore these feelings, where everyone is accepted and welcomed exactly as they are. In doing so, I think we’ve created a community where we see our shared humanity, embrace both our commonalities and our differences, and lift one another up.”
— Shoshanna Hershkowitz, director, Stony Brook Chorale and Camerata Singers

My efforts are simply to provide an environment that is inclusively accessible, enabling all students to thrive. From the first day of class, students are greeted with a statement confirming inclusivity, civility and cultural humility as a prerequisite for learning, in my courses and in life. I begin by telling the class that each of them matters. We are a health professions major that is gifted to be very diverse in terms of gender/identity, sex, race, ethnicity, ability, socio-economic status, culture, world views and lived experiences.

“I work very hard to use inclusive language when lecturing and when writing exams. I articulate, enunciate, project my voice, initiate eye contact and speak in such a way that each student is able to hear what I’m saying.

“Overall, I am enthusiastic and passionate about teaching and convey my excitement about what we learn each day. I work to create a sense of community. The coursework ends with the following statement on the final exams: ‘It has been my pleasure and honor to have served as your instructor. It is my hope that you grasp on to all the amazing opportunities that life has in store for you. And when you do, you will fly …’
Robbye Kinkade, faculty in the health science major, School of Health Professions

“Operating from a social model of disability, I adopt elements of universal design within the classroom to minimize educational barriers and provide equitable teaching practices for students who may be impacted by mental health conditions. These teaching practices account for differing student needs and learning styles. Oftentimes, students experiencing depression need deadline flexibility so all students are afforded the opportunity for various dates for assignment submissions. Students experiencing anxiety may do better with multiple options to fulfill participation grades including discussion posts, group presentations or video feedback. When learning environments are developed with consideration for students with disabilities at inception, the class design affords all students a welcoming and inclusive environment.”
— Michelle Ballan, professor and associate dean for research, School of Social Welfare, and professor, Department of Family, Population & Preventive Medicine

Safe space floral
Students in Lorena Salcedo-Watson’s art class are encouraged to drop insecurities, and freely express themselves.

“The early 20s are transitional times, where some students may not feel fully accepted at home and/or rejected in new spaces. Many are first generation students who may be figuring out a lot of things as a family trailblazer. I give students permission to be themselves. I tell them they don’t have to impress anyone – including me. This is about YOU. It’s YOUR time to discover who you are; and reveal what’s special, magical and unique about you and every student here.

“I make sure they know they don’t have to be ‘perfect’. I don’t show them examples of what they should be doing in art. I want them to figure out how they want to express themselves and know they’re not here to be judged. I want them to take chances, be vulnerable, grow and gain confidence along the way.

“I start off the first session by having students talk to each of their  classmates while drawing blind contour drawings of each other – which is drawing while looking only at your subject, not the paper. They introduce themselves while creating these fun images  in a ‘goofy’ speed dating style. And throughout the semester, I provide opportunities for us all to get comfortable and get to know each other in a welcoming, non-competitive environment. When I read my syllabus, I go through university statements about inclusion and respect.

“I also let students know that ‘life is going to happen when you’re in school.’ I’ve seen students become homeless, lose a single parent, miss their family in another country. Whatever is going on, I want them to know they can reach out to me and/or take advantage of resources available for them. I tell them that I am here for you – just give me a sign. And that there’s a space for you – whoever you are.  We need YOU.”
— Lorena Salcedo-Watson, professor of practice and undergraduate advisor for the Art Department

“Professor Lani Blanco and Dr. Barbara Brathwaite are intentional about creating a safe learning space where students feel comfortable meeting with them if they feel bullied or not accepted in the learning environment. They go out of their way to make sure all students know they are important. This year, Dr. Brathwaite included statements in her syllabus under the heading, ‘This is an Inclusive Classroom’.  These were then adopted by all undergraduate faculty in the School of Nursing and include:

 ‘Stony Brook School of Nursing is committed to the development and maintenance of inclusive learning areas. There are classrooms, labs and other places of learning, including virtual classes, where you will be treated with respect and dignity and where all individuals are provided equitable opportunity to participate, contribute and succeed. SON classes welcome all students regardless of race/ethnicity, gender identities, gender expressions, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, disabilities, religion, regional background, Veteran status, citizenship status, nationality and other diverse identities that we each bring to our courses.’ ”
— Patricia Bruckenthal, dean, School of Nursing (about Professor Lani Blanco and Dr. Barbara Brathwaite)

— Ellen Cooke

Related Information:

Student Accessibility Support Center Sensory Space in the Stony Brook Union – a place for students to ‘refocus and refresh’

Student Affairs’ Meditation Room at the Student Activities Center (SAC)

Diversity Centers across campus, including the UNITI Cultural Center

President McInnis’ recent, all-campus message – ‘Our Commitment to Mental Health and Wellness’ – with two new videos and helpful links to raise awareness for faculty and help students manage stress

Message to students from Rick Gatteau, Vice President, Student Affairs on coping with stress

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