by Alex Belisario
I have always been a fan of the quiet hero. In the cartoon “Phineas
and Ferb,” Perry the Platypus lets the world think he is only sitting around
chattering when in reality he is saving the tri-state area in almost every
episode. Marvel’s Groot doesn’t always have a lot to say, but what he does to
protect his friends speaks volumes. Grogu, the Minions, the little aliens in “Toy
Story,” and other supporting characters all play critical roles in their
worlds, and they have places of honor in my office. Indeed, the idea of
providing help and support for people in need is a large part of why I chose a
career in higher education.
If the previous paragraph didn’t cement it, I’m a nerd. Always
have been. And knowing that my interests weren’t necessarily cool could have
made me a little lonely as a child. It turns out
that not everyone was excited when their dad built a computer that let them
play the touch typing game or spent time reading the Reader's
Digest books at their aunt's house during parties.
On the other hand, present-day me appreciates past me in that I
can see and understand some of my students’ struggles when they get to campus
and attempt to make connections with others. Past me never would have imagined
finding kindred spirits in colleagues who would walk the streets of Seattle to
play Pokémon GO between ACUHO-I sessions, remotely group-watch “The
Mandalorian,” and create trivia games when the pandemic kept us separated.
This, in part, is GeekEd. It’s a collection of geeks and nerds working in a
variety of areas in higher education, who talk about our interests and how we
incorporate them into our work to benefit students. We have spoken at WACUHO
and NASPA conferences but were most geeked (pun intended) when we presented our
panels at WonderCon and San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC).
At first, the concept of presenting at SDCC seemed unimaginable.
But having already been enthusiastic attendees of SDCC, two of our founding
members, Tyler Miller and Ryan McRae, figured it wouldn’t be any different than
presenting at one of our usual conferences. They enlisted myself, Emily
Sandoval, and Alfred Day to join their ranks (“Avengers Assemble!”), and Jess
Pettitt expertly moderated our conversation (unfortunately, Felicia Day was not
available). In that first session in 2011, with an audience of a few hundred
attendees, we felt the joy of being in community. There were high school
students who came up to us after the presentation to say they didn’t know there
were people like us (in my case, women of color with nerdy interests) working
in higher ed. One student revealed that she was part of an organization on her
campus that was struggling with “mean girls” and wanted advice. Others were
higher ed professionals who wanted to bring geek programming to their campus.
It was glorious!
Sure, we may focus on fantasy, but it connects to our work in
real-world ways. For example, Emily Sandoval, my fellow GeekEd founding member
and friend, focused her dissertation and continues to center her work on the
topic of belonging. She enjoys shaping the student experience and providing
spaces where students can find their community. Our panels have progressed from
simply explaining that geeks exist to how we can use our interests to better reach
students when discussing identity, mental health, sense of belonging, career
development, e-sports, and much more. By adding to and updating our panels, we
have developed more complex offerings that include topics of importance to people’s
intersectional identities. We use these opportunities to talk about
representation in the genres we love and dedicate a great deal of time to consuming.
We also discuss the myriad ways our work matters and how we are superheroes in
our everyday lives.
During the pandemic, we took to Zoom to present and connect. It
served its purpose in less-than-ideal conditions, but when we got to come back
in person this summer, the energy was palpable. People were craving connection.
And although the Comic-Con crowd was smaller (135,000 instead of up to 250,000),
the energy, the pageantry, the displays, and the cosplay (costume play) were a
welcome return. Every interest and medium was represented, making it easy to
find new material to consume (“Paper Girls” looks like something I want
to get into) or talk with people about existing favorites (“Severance”
had a giant overlay on the Hard Rock Hotel, so it was impossible to
The night before our panels, core member Brian MacDonald organized
a pre-presentation meet-up at a local hotel. Since our last in-person panels,
we had expanded families, taken new jobs, started doctoral programs, and
persevered through a host of life experiences. Our combination of presenters
from the first GeekEd panel in 2011 and those who had never been to Comic-Con
before found kinship in our fandoms and bonded like we’d known each other
The next day, we gathered at the central library to talk about
infusing our fandoms into our work, creating frameworks for divisive fandom
(and real-life) conversations, how to bring geeky passions into any line of
work, and the importance of parasocial relationships. We highlighted the
importance of the work we continue to do and how, in both quiet and public
ways, sharing our geek identities can be an act of heroism. Then, as quickly as
it began (not a Jeremy Bearimy), our panels were complete, and we were back to
our everyday lives.
Alex Belisario is the executive director of college student life at the University of California Santa Cruz.