Ky Merkley receives 2022 Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Award

Classics graduate student Ky Merkley is being recognized for their exceptional dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion as one of four 2022 recipients of the Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Awards.

The Larine Y. Cowan Awards are presented annually to University of Illinois faculty and staff by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (OVCDEI) in four categories. Merkley received this year's award designated for Advocacy for LGBTQ Affairs.

Named in honor of the past Assistant Chancellor and Director of what is now the Office for Access & Equity, these annual awards reflect the commitment to human rights advocacy and diversity that defined the leadership of Larine Y. Cowan for nearly 20 years at Illinois.

This year’s award recipients were honored at the 37th Annual Celebration of Diversity on Friday, November 11, 2022, at the I Hotel and Conference Center. You can watch a video from the celebration below.

A brief bio from Merkley’s nominators follows.

Advocacy for LGBTQ Affairs: Ky Merkley, Ph.D. candidate in classical philology  

Ky Merkley is recognized for their remarkable talents as a teacher who both respects and engages with diversity and helps create community in ways that go far beyond the classroom. This award honors students, staff, or faculty who have demonstrated their commitment to supporting and promoting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer affairs at Illinois.

Merkley’s dissertation sits at the intersection of transgender studies and classics and analyzes the ways in which modern conceptions of gender have erased the genderfluid and diverse gendered identities that existed in the Roman Empire and strives to uncover how gender is defined and functions within Roman society. Ky founded Trans in Classics in 2020, a working group and community for trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming classicists, that strives to create a community for trans classicists, develop resources and materials for the trans community and promote transgender readings and transgender histories of the ancient Mediterranean. In the past year, Ky has delivered invited talks, workshops, and roundtables on the importance of transgender history, the need for trans-inclusive feminism, and the importance of having a transgender caucus for classicists in such diverse places as King’s College, the University of Ghent, the University of Sheffield, Penn State University, and Wake Forest University.

What students single out in Ky’s classes is the warm sense of community they experience. Ky believes deeply in the creation of a class as “a family, a community, a team.” They strive for a pedagogy that engages students where they are and shows them how investing in course skills and content will serve them for the rest of their lives. Students express gratitude for a class atmosphere that places the process of learning over simply getting the answer right, and where everyone is willing to make the mistakes necessary to learn.

Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Editor's note: A version of this story first appeared on the OVCDEI website.