Kris Gandara walked into a classroom at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln three years ago with a mohawk, tattoos and piercings. But as she took the papers out of her prep folder, she surprised students who thought she was their classmate.
Gandara, an English and women's and gender studies lecturer at UNL, said her hair and facial piercings, as well as the occasional tie, are all a part of who she is.
As an academic, Gandara said her style contrasts the stereotypical professor but makes her question whether her appearance will allow her work will be respected by her colleagues. That individuality and identity are key components of Gandara's test-less Intro to Women's and Gender Studies class, which students say helps them find their own selves.
"We all know the world is a colorful place, but we're all afraid to wear a different color," Gandara said.
In the discussion-oriented class, Gandara said those fears must be broken down so each individual can share their response to modern feminist and gender-related issues.
One way the class breaks down those fears is through a relaxed atmosphere, she said. Each week, three students bring food and Gandara provides coffee and hot water for tea and hot chocolate.
The snacks and beverages are all part of a community-building process, which she said helps students open up.
Generally, Gandara said students who enter the class are socialized to believe women do not face discrimination. This "happy picture" of society is what students have been taught to see, she said.
When they open up to the real problems, Gandara said students experience a transformation.
Ben Paige, one of Gandara's students and a junior communications major, said the class enlightened him.
"I thought it would be man-hater club, but it is definitely not," he said.
Paige said the class opened up his eyes by posing questions that engage the student in women's issues.
Gandara's circular discussion groups work more like a workshop than a normal lecture. Everything is open, he said, like a collective thought process centered on that day's topic and readings, he added.
Gandara said discussing feminist issues first begins with self-love. Without identity and self-respect, she added fixing problems does not happen.
Although her style and personality are central to the classroom, Gandara said they might complicate her credibility among her peers.
At feminist conferences, she said other academics might judge her scholarship by her unconventional style.
For Gandara, that raises the question, "Can we do this work and stay authentic to who we are?"
While she said her confidence level ebbs and flows, Gandara said her colleagues and students help her look in the mirror and feel great.
Courtney Ditsworth, another one of Gandara's students and a senior nutrition, exercise and health science major, said Gandara's unique look and perspective have made the class a great experience. She added Gandara has an engaging way of expressing her viewpoints toward women's issues.
Ditsworth said she definitely noticed Gandara's individualism on the first day of class and that she respects her authenticity.
"You look up to someone with that confidence," she said.