GSA co-adviser Harper plans to retire


The sun was peeking through the window of Ruth Harper’s southeast corner office in Wenona Hall on a recent Friday, which seemed fitting since for the past two decades Harper has been shining light on diversity issues at South Dakota State University.

But there was something different about Harper’s office on this day: Empty moving boxes sat on the floor.

After working at SDSU for the past 22 years, co-advising the Gay Straight Alliance and coordinating the college counseling and student affairs administration specialties in the counseling and human development master’s program, Harper is set to retire in August.

“I have loved just about everything I have been allowed to do at SDSU,” Harper said. “Working with GSA is a privilege and a great opportunity to see our university through the eyes of students who have not always felt welcome and supported here. It is thrilling to have a sense of progress at SDSU with regard to LGBT students and staff.” 

Harper has seen first-hand the challenges LGBT members encounter in a conservative state. The latest challenge came this year during the legislative session when House Bill 1008 was proposed for transgender students in the state’s public schools to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender at birth.

Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed the bill after it was initially passed through the state senate. Harper said she was “worried” and “concerned” when she first heard of the controversial bill.

 “My first thought was how the bathroom bill would affect my personal transgender friends and student transgender,” Harper, who was initially hesitant to speak about the bill fearing backlash her students would face, said. “I was worried that they would feel less safe and less welcomed in South Dakota. I was relieved to see the bill get vetoed.”

Harper, a native of Rochester, Minnesota, and a self-described humanist, arrived at SDSU in 1994.  For the past five years, Harper has volunteered as a faculty adviser for GSA and has been committed to diversity and inclusion efforts throughout her time at SDSU. 

 In earlier years, GSA was a group called Sons and Daughters and met in a secret location at an undisclosed time. Those interested had to contact the counseling center to find out about meetings, which implied something was wrong with being LGBT. That may seem like a long time ago for many in the LGBT community, considering the gains made recently – including Daugaard’s veto of the bathroom bill and last summer’s Supreme Court ruling to legalize gay marriage.

“The campus climate has moved in the same direction as the overall societal climate in the United States,” Harper said. “It has become more inclusive. But, there’s still more room for progress.”

Now, GSA has its own student-run office in the basement of the Student Union and weekly meetings are publicized and opened to the public.

 Transgender student Chris Hartzler sought help from Harper after meeting with a counselor at SDSU last year. 

The counselor said she could speak about everything — except transgender-related issues. The counselor ignored the transgender issue.

 “Ruth assured me that wasn’t okay,” Hartzler said. “She was going to make sure that didn’t happen to people.”

Recently, Hartzler went to the same counseling center and received a different response.

“The paperwork and counselors were far more inclusive. It was much more welcoming,” Hartzler said. “I attribute that to Ruth for making that change happen.”

Jay Trenhaile, the head of the Department of Counseling and Human Development, said in an email when he first met Harper during his faculty interview at SDSU in 1999 her enthusiasm for working with students was evident.

 “Since that initial meeting it was clear that Ruth was very passionate about the Student Affairs profession,” Trenhaile said. “But she was also equally passionate about all of the students she worked with at SDSU. Ruth has left a lasting legacy within the CHRD program and at the university. I’m very fortunate to have worked with her and I know her students feel the same way.”

Rachel Willson, an alum of SDSU, who is now a digital marketing coordinator at Capital Services and Marketing in Sioux Falls, remembers Harper as being helpful and compassionate.

“It was amazing to work with her,” Wilson said. “She is a club adviser who takes an interest and attends the meetings regularly.”

Harper also participates in safe-zone training, where students and faculty members learn about the LGBT community. She serves on the Tiospaye Council of the American Indian Education and Cultural Center at SDSU, and was recently honored with a star quilt by the students and staff of the AIECC.

Harper helped organize a lavender ceremony honoring LGBT students who were graduating last year. It was the first time the ceremony was held at SDSU.

“It was great to recognize the contributions of GSA members who were graduating from SDSU,” she noted. “These students are active in more than just GSA, some are student-athletes, some achieve academic honors—they are simply wonderful students. I hope the lavender graduation becomes an SDSU tradition.”

The first lavender ceremony held at a university campus was in 1995 at the University of Michigan. The tradition is now being carried out on campuses nationwide.

Harper came to SDSU from Lincoln, where she worked at the University of Nebraska as a counselor, and then as an administrator at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

 “I want to retire while I still love what I’m doing,” Harper, 64, said. “And the students still think I’m competent.”

She plans to use her retirement to write her fourth book. Harper has co-authored three books, her most recent, titled: “More Than Listening: A Casebook for Using Counseling Skills in Student Affairs Work.” This book offers student affairs professionals basic counseling theories and techniques appropriate for non-counselors who work with college students.

The next book does something similar, focusing instead on teaching skills for practitioners in student affairs.  

 Harper will also be working part-time on a project related to the American Indian graduate education next year at SDSU.

“I’m really grateful for the experience,” Harper said. “I will miss the students. I really love my students.”