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LGBTQ+ scholarship recipient hopes to open hearts and minds

June 14, 2021
By Mary Beth Hope

AJ Slater

A.J. Slater was Campus Life & Leadership coordinator at MCC-Blue River for 11 years, starting in 2005.

Vance Cleveland

MCC student Vance Cleveland, first winner of the A.J. Slater Memorial Scholarship

Vance Cleveland, a student at Metropolitan Community College-Longview, has been named the inaugural recipient of MCC's first LGBTQ+ scholarship.

The A.J. Slater Memorial Scholarship recognizes an MCC student advocate of the LGBTQ community. It also pays tribute to the advocacy and spirit of Slater, a transgender man and the former Campus Life & Leadership coordinator at MCC-Blue River in Independence. He died in 2017.

Cleveland is working toward an associate in arts degree and hopes to embark on a career that will utilize his passion for training and riding horses. The award will be $1,000, divided equally between the fall and spring semesters in 2021-22.

MCC-Longview English instructor Zoe Albright said the selection committee made an excellent choice in Cleveland because he is someone who will "pay it forward" one way or another.

"I foresee Vance being a change agent," Albright said. "He may not see that yet, but I do."

In his application essay, Cleveland, who is transgender, said educating others about being trans is a priority. He hopes that by opening lines of communication — with those who are members of the LGBTQ community and those who are not — he can make a positive impact.

"I aim to be someone others can talk to, confide in, and look to when they need someone," Cleveland wrote. "I want to give back and advocate the same way those before me did."

Like A.J. Slater.

Tasha Slater, A.J.'s widow and mother of their 18-year-old son, Jayden, said A.J. was a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community.

"He was at the forefront," she said. "I think obviously the people who apply for the scholarship know that, but I think it's important that people remember that about him."

At MCC, Slater was known for his dedication to students, bright sense of humor and inimitable ability to make those around him feel valued and heard.

"He lived for MCC, let me tell you," Tasha said. "He knew no stranger in life. Devoted to Jayden, oh my gosh. Probably one of the funniest people you will ever have met in your entire life. Just a good human. A friend to everyone."

Tasha expressed gratitude on behalf of her family to the College and the employees who raised funds — through events such as "Not Your Grandma's Bingo" —to establish the scholarship. She also extended a heartfelt message to this year's recipient:

"We want him to know to never give up. To always fight for what you believe in, and always protect your community. I want him to know my family is proud of him as well."

Asked what she thinks A.J.'s reaction would be to learn this year's inaugural scholarship is going to a transgender student, Tasha said: "First, he would say, 'Never in my lifetime did I think this would happen — that we are awarding scholarships to transgender students.'" She added, "It probably would've been the proudest day of his life."

Cleveland was surprised and honored to be the first person to receive an LGBTQ scholarship from MCC and hopes the annual gift will help build acceptance.

"I think there's a stereotype that people make that choice (to be transgender), that they just snap their fingers and decide, 'Oh, I want to do this,'" he said. "I wouldn't wish that discomfort on anyone."

He hopes hearing about the scholarship will open hearts and minds.

"Listen to people. Empathize with people and their experience," Cleveland said. "Just because it's not the same experience you have, doesn't mean it's wrong."

To donate online to the A.J. Slater Memorial Scholarship fund, go to bit.ly/2SFcGSa. Get info on making a gift by cash or check at mcckc.edu/foundation/ways-to-give.