Sean Compas’s career embodies the defining values of his alma mater, Thurgood Marshall College.
Currently, Sean Compas is a teaching assistant and a third-year doctoral student at UC San Diego’s department of literature, where his research falls in the fields of disability studies and queer theory. In fact, for nearly his entire career, Compas has kept a noticeable commitment to social justice issues. It should then come as no surprise to learn that Compas graduated from UCSD in 2006 as an undergraduate political science major from Thurgood Marshall College, a residential college distinguished by its dedication to justice and social responsibility. Per the Marshall general education requirement, Compas enrolled in the Dimensions of Culture program, called “DOC” for short.
The DOC course sequence improves the writing skills of Marshall students while teaching U.S. history through the lens of social justice. Compas said he was drawn to DOC as an undergraduate in part by the course’s unique and progressive method of teaching history. “The material in DOC is counter-hegemonic; it often offers a voice or a narrative that’s not traditionally included in mainstream histories or mainstream narratives,” Compas said. “So for me, I really enjoyed DOC.”
The exploratory nature of the course also helped Compas learn about a variety of academic fields. “It’s a brief look at deep topics, and so oftentimes we only spend a week on queer justice, or a week on disability rights, when in fact one could spend an entire quarter or year on such topics,” Compas said, describing DOC as “a survey course.”
The DOC program influenced Compas’s self-awareness and sense of identity. “We’re all composed of these intersectional identities as people, that are very complex, but not all of our identities are visible, right?” Compas said. “Not all of our identities are necessarily evident to people as we make our way through the world, as we interact with people.”He pointed to sexual orientation and (dis)ability as two obvious factors of identity that can often be “invisible.” In light of this, Compas praised DOC for providing “an opportunity and a challenge to […] rethink one’s positionality in the world.”
Compas’s passion for DOC as an undergraduate student preceded a still-unfolding career marked by a passion for both social justice and academia. After graduating from UCSD in 2006, Compas’s first job expressed this interest; he moved to San Francisco to work for the Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit organization committed to LGBTQ advocacy.
At the time, the HRC’s main objective was fighting for greater expansion of rights and protections for LGBTQ people. In California, marriage equality became legal in 2008. Anticipating pushback from anti-LGBTQ groups over this monumental achievement, HRC worked to keep the newly awarded rights legal. Proposition 8 was a ballot initiative in California that would add a line to the California Constitution stating that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” In addition to being emotionally harmful and cruel, Proposition 8 threatened same-sex couples’ access to the systemic benefits of marriage, such as tax deductions. To help HRC continue the winning streak and fight Proposition 8, Compas worked in fundraising, selling memberships, and soliciting donations aimed at defeating anti-LGBTQ ballot initiatives.
In 2008, the economy crashed, and Compas left the HRC to return to school. In November, Proposition 8 passed and became law in California, which was a step back for LGBTQ rights. The courts eventually struck it down in 2010.
Despite leaving the HRC to go back to school, Compas’s fight against Proposition 8 continued to influence his work, as did his clear passion for social justice. His leap back into academia brought him to New Hampshire for the cultural studies master’s program at Dartmouth College, where his research focused on ballot propositions like Proposition 8.
“There were propositions and amendments appearing all over voter ballots across the U.S., and I was really interested in the way that visibility could influence people’s voting practices.” Compas said. His theory was that the differences in visibility of certain identities affect the electoral outcomes of ballot propositions like Proposition 8. How does the visibility of identities affect related legislation? Do “invisible” identities face a greater challenge in securing respect and justice under the law?
“I was interested in the ways that if more people could see, or register, these different aspects of one’s identity, how that might impact the way people vote,” Compas said. “What does it mean to have to constantly come out as queer, as gay, as lesbian, as trans, or as disabled? And what that means as opposed to having other aspects of your identity maybe being more visible.”
After completing his graduate studies, Compas decided to actively apply his skills and beliefs by becoming a lawyer. “I had applied to law school, and I basically got waitlisted or rejected from every place I applied,” he said.
With his plans for law school sidelined, Compas moved to Washington, D.C. in 2010, living with friends while he looked for work. Eventually, Compas started working at the Association of American Medical Colleges, a nonprofit organization with the goal of improving medical education and providing more equitable healthcare. His first project at the AAMC was with MedEdPORTAL, an online peer-reviewed journal that allows medical school faculty to submit works for publication.
Compas never lost his commitment to social justice, however, and while at the AAMC, he began to work on a project geared toward improving the healthcare experiences of LGBTQ patients. “The average medical student only had about four hours of training on how to interact with LGBT patients over the course of four years, so we identified a gap within medical education,” Compas said. “The AAMC put together a best practices anthology of resources on what medical students, residents, and physicians needed to be doing. This anthology consisted of what current institutions — medical schools and teaching hospitals — were doing right. This anthology served as guidance for teaching hospitals and medical schools that needed to address this gap. It served as an opportunity to learn from their peer institutions and implement some of these in the classroom setting whether they were team-based learning activities, TBLs, problem-based learning activities, PBLs, or other pedagogical approaches. In short, medical schools needed to make sure that all patients are cared for, and that doctors, physicians, and residents are asking the right questions.”
While working at the AAMC, Compas also represented the organization in providing policy recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Compas said that his role was to advise Kathleen Sebelius, the former U..S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, on “federal guidelines for addressing and providing care for LGBT patients.”
“That was really a highlight of my career there,” Compas said, recalling his time in the district and the opportunity to actually shape institutional positions on LGBTQ issues.
After leaving the AAMC, Compas transitioned to the field of public health and international development, joining the Population Council, an international, nonprofit, non-governmental organization that focuses specifically on HIV, AIDS, reproductive health, poverty, gender, and youth issues. The Population Council works to address a number of global health issues, including helping people around the world get access to HIV prevention, treatments, and care. At the Population Council, Compas assumed the role of HIV and AIDS program coordinator, in which he co-managed the HIV and AIDS program portfolio.
“I oversaw all of our country directors around the world for the HIV program, and I helped with reporting, making sure all the deadlines to our donors, like USAID, CDC, the UNFP, were all met on time,” Compas said. “I conducted qualitative data analysis for key informant interviews for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s DREAMS award in Kenya and Zambia, and I oversaw the entire Institutional Review Board, IRB, process for the HIV program, in addition to grant writing and monitoring the progress toward programmatic and budgetary goals for the HIV [and] AIDS portfolio.”
Compas continued to maintain an eye for justice while working as the HIV and AIDS program coordinator. “Although I moved from medical education to public health and international development, I think there was still a correlation between the way that we can view what populations are vulnerable within healthcare settings or having access to things like HIV prevention or care and treatment, support, family planning, contraceptions, or abortion,” he said.
During his time at the Population Council, Compas became discouraged by the lack of advancement opportunities for people without doctoral degrees and decided to pursue his own doctorate. “At this time I was also kind of getting exhausted of the grind in D.C. and the incoming administration,” he added, alluding to the famously high-stress work environment.
Compas left Washington, D.C. in 2017 and returned to UCSD to pursue his doctorate. He is currently in his third year in the cultural studies section of the literature department. Compas decided to return to UCSD to work on his doctorate because of his connection to the area and the community, but he was also pulled back home by the DOC program.
“[I’ve] always wanted to teach, too, and so when I applied here, and got in, I was so excited […] What sealed the deal was the opportunity to teach in DOC,” he said. “I didn’t want to teach in the other programs, so when I got the acceptance to teach in DOC I kind of knew that was going to be it for me.”
His return to DOC is unsurprising in the full context of his present career. The topics that define the DOC program, such as (dis)ability, gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, have shown up in his own work and research repeatedly. His current research at UCSD follows the same thread and also includes elements from his research at Dartmouth. “I’m still interested in the idea of sight as the primary conduit of senses,” he said. “Oftentimes, what we see we perceive as true, right?” Compas argued that our trust in sight and the accuracy of our interpretations may be misplaced. We assume that our perceptions of others’ identities are accurate and definitive, but this isn’t often the case. “We’re all familiar with the blue parking permit that depicts a person in a wheelchair to sort of signify disability,” Compas said, “despite the fact that disability rarely conforms to such standards. We have this fantasy of trying to easily idenity others. Or perceive disability as knowable or an unchanging category as Disability Studies scholar Ellen Samuels would say. We use the rather flawed binary perceptions of others to determine and categorize their identity.”
Compas argued that this misplaced trust in sight affects the way we approach different social issues. “I think that because we rely so much on what we see, [I’m] interested in the ways that people actually experience blindness [towards these issues],” Compas said. “Not actual blindness, but how we might experience a lack of true understanding, of seeing something or someone or a situation.” In our approach to identity, politics, and even day to day interactions, Compas raised the question, “What is it that we’re not seeing?”
Graphic by Max Davis.