The undergraduate researcher and peer educator reflects on his time and accomplishments at Texas Tech University.
An image of a bridge with a rainbow sunset behind it is tattooed on Matthew Koehl's right forearm. While the tattoo itself may be hard to miss, the reasoning behind it can take a little explanation.
Koehl, a graduating Texas Tech University Human Development & Family Studies major, has a self-proclaimed passion for people. Through undergraduate research and other involvement at Texas Tech, he has used this passion to help bring together different communities of people, something he feels is vital for progress to occur.
During his time as a Red Raider, Koehl has presented his undergraduate research at multiple conferences and been a peer educator for Risk Intervention & Safety Education (RISE). His efforts recently received national recognition from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators General Assembly (NASPA), who named Koehl the 2018 Peer Educator of the Year.
“My time at Texas Tech has taught me how to reach across the aisle and work with those who are different than me,” Koehl said. “Much of my research and work experience focuses on improving the experiences of LGBTQ students on campus. I've learned how to bridge the gap between people who have very different backgrounds and beliefs and show one another that, at the end of the day, people need other people.”
The journey to Texas Tech
Like many high school seniors, Koehl was itching to strike out on his own. When it came time to look at and apply to schools, he set his sights on universities in states away from his hometown of San Antonio. All it took was one visit to Texas Tech's campus, one of the only in-state schools he applied to, to change his mind.
“I visited Texas Tech with a friend, more for him than myself,” Koehl said. “I fell in love with the campus the first time I toured it. It's funny how life works in ways that you would never expect, but I couldn't be happier about my choice.”
Once on campus, Koehl never looked back. Over the next four years, he became involved with the Honors College, the Office of LGBTQIA and RISE. Through his involvement, he came to work closely with and respect the work of Cathy Duran, associate vice provost for Student Affairs; Brittany Todd, director of RISE; Jody Randall, director of the Office of LGBTQIA; and Aliza Wong, associate dean of the Honors College. However, he credits much of his undergraduate experience to Dana Weiser, assistant professor and researcher in the department of Human Development & Family Studies.
“Her guidance has been the foundation of my research portfolio, university involvement and quite frankly, my sanity,” Koehl added. “I will forever be grateful for her support of all of my ideas, yet her realistic candor to keep me grounded.”
Koehl met Weiser during his Honors College First-Year Experience course, in which Weiser was a guest speaker for one week. Weiser knew Koehl was special from the moment she met him. When Koehl sought out her mentorship for research of his own, it was a perfect match.
“I was thrilled when Matthew approached me to work on a research project about LGBTQ individuals' experiences on campus,” Weiser said. “We have excellent data and are eager to share with administrators and academic outlets. I am proud of all his accomplishments and look forward to seeing his professional trajectory.”
Koehl's research initially was inspired by his desire to explore the prevalence of sexual assault in LGBTQ communities. As he and Weiser began to explore the topic, it became more and more broad.
“I realized it was important to understand the experiences of the LGBTQ community on campus as a whole, because we really didn't have any way of understanding that before this project,” he said. “I wanted to look at more than just experiences of sexual violence, so the project grew into examining the lived experiences of LGBTQ individuals in many facets – school, work, experiences of micro aggressions, perceptions of the community by others and more.”
Koehl and Weiser chose to focus the study by looking at campus climate. However, at the time, there was no campus climate report representative of the LGBTQ community for the university, so Koehl created one. The survey looked at attitudes toward and experiences of LGBTQ people on Texas Tech's campus. More than 900 individuals took the survey, the results of which he presented at various conferences, summits and colloquiums in Lubbock and the greater Texas area.
“LGBTQ+ Campus Climate and University Student, Faculty, Staff Success” found the individuals surveyed reported greater levels of loneliness and violence along with lower levels of self-esteem because of their sexual orientation. These individuals also were found to exhibit a higher likelihood to consider suicide and poorer mental health outcomes and integration within their community compared to heterosexual peers and colleagues.
However, not all findings of the survey were negative. Outness, or the level to which a person is living openly in accordance to how they identify, was found to be a protective factor from things like loneliness and low self-esteem.
“I want my research to be a catalyst for change in this world,” Koehl emphasized. “With the support of the university, faculty and staff, I do feel like I have made a shift in the campus culture through some of the work I have done.”
Outside of research and classes, Koehl also has been involved with RISE for the last year as a student assistant and president of Peer Educators. Koehl enjoys this position because it allows him to break down walls and stigmas around tricky subjects like sex education, mental health and substance abuse.
He said that when sexual education is talked about normally, people feel safer discussing and reporting their experiences, and when mental health isn't treated as taboo, those who struggle are more able to reach out for help and resources. He added that the type of prevention education RISE provides gives everyone a voice and helps people realize there are others who care and want to help them.
Todd said Koehl is an exceptional leader and has made a positive impact on the lives of countless Texas Tech students.
“Matthew is passionate about helping others and is dedicated to making Texas Tech safer for all students,” Todd said. “Above all else, Matthew's authenticity and work ethic are contagious. He embodies what it means to be a Red Raider, and I have no doubt he will change the world.”
Koehl recently was nationally recognized for his work as a peer educator at the 2018 Boosting Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students Initiatives (BACCHUS) of NASPA General Assembly in Orlando, Florida. The BACCHUS Initiatives support collegiate peer educators and advisers by empowering students and student affairs administrators to create campus environments that are healthy and safe. NASPA is the leading national association for the career advancement, health, and sustainability of the student affairs profession.
Koehl was honored as the 2018 Outstanding Peer Educator for his exceptional leadership and service at Texas Tech by promoting a campus community that values safety, wellness, inclusivity and respect.
“I was incredibly surprised and excited by the honor,” he said. “To receive an honor like this – it's hard to describe how good it makes me feel, but it's a time when I think to myself, ‘OK, people do see what we do. This is working. This is so worth it.'”
With his undergraduate career coming to a close at graduation on Saturday (Dec. 15), Koehl has no plans to slow down any time soon.
Currently, he is in the process of choosing a doctoral program in human development and family studies, where he wants to focus his research on the development of adolescents and young adults into leaders, especially in marginalized groups.
Wherever he goes from here, the lessons he has learned and the friends he has made will always be close to his heart, and a reminder of what can come from bridging the gap.
“Texas Tech is a strong, united community,” Koehl said. “We are a family.”