University of Iowa undergraduate student Savannah DeGroot is driven to serve the LGBTQ+ community and the homeless.
Emily Nelson
Justin Torner

Savannah DeGroot doesn’t like to sit still. The fourth-year anthropology student normally can be found running from class to class and meeting to meeting—at least during non-COVID-19 times. And the groups and activities she finds most important are the ones that allow her to do work that is near and dear to her heart.

When the Des Moines-area resident arrived on the University of Iowa campus for her first year, she didn’t know what she planned to study. But life experiences, including being homeless from her sophomore year of high school through her freshman year of college, were pointing her in the right direction.

“During high school, I was interested in med school, but I was also starting to become interested in nonprofits and helping LGBTQ+ and homeless people,” DeGroot says. “Being a queer homeless youth myself, I was interested in giving back to the community I was a part of. I had those ideas in my head but didn’t exactly know what I would do with them.”

What DeGroot has done while in college is serve those communities in various ways through her participation and work with the Pride Alliance Center, Gamma Rho Lambda National Sorority, Hawkeye Service Breaks, and the Basic Needs Support Committee.

DeGroot declared human physiology as her major with a pre-med track early on but soon realized that wasn’t what she wanted to do. A general education course introduced her to anthropology, and because she still is interested the human body, she joined the medical anthropology track with a goal to be a forensic anthropologist. However, a student job assisting with autopsies in the Decedent Care Center at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics made her rethink that.

Pride Alliance Center

The vision of the Pride Alliance Center (Pride House) is to support student success and holistic wellness by providing a nurturing and affirming space for Iowa’s LGBTQ students. The Pride House is a space for students to authentically exist and engage with their peers and UI community. Iowa student Savannah DeGroot says, “Pride House changed my life. I’ve met the most amazing people through it.”

“I thought it was really interesting, but I realized I didn’t have a passion for it,” DeGroot says. “But I now have a fun fact for the rest of my life.”

She decided to focus on helping others within higher education or the nonprofit world, so she switched to the gender and culture track within anthropology.

“It’s been a whirlwind, but I’m settling down on the plan a little bit,” DeGroot says.

While she may not have known it then, DeGroot embarked on her eventual career path during her first year at Iowa. She traveled to Columbus, Ohio, on a Hawkeye Service Break that focused on restorative justice. The following year found her in Denver on a trip focused on homelessness. She was selected as a trip leader her third year, but the trip to Indianapolis to focus on food justice was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These trips have continued to ignite my passion to give back to the communities I’ve been a part of,” DeGroot says. “They have taught me about civic engagement and how to help uplift people and help them to be the best versions of themselves they can be.”

The Pride Alliance Center (Pride House) has played a big role in DeGroot’s time at Iowa, but it took her a while to really discover all it could offer. DeGroot was in the All In Living Learning Community her first year at Iowa. The LLC was in Slater Hall, which shares a backyard with Pride House. So, while DeGroot says she was aware of Pride House, she didn’t really get involved until her second year when she joined Gamma Rho Lambda, an LGBTQ+ inclusive sorority that welcomes women and transgender individuals of all sexualities and identities. The sorority doesn’t have its own house and uses Pride House as a sort of home base and location for a lot of its programming.

DeGroot says she spent so much time at Pride House—hanging out, eating, doing homework—that people would joke she was a pseudo-employee. Her third year, she was hired as a center programming assistant.

“They have just been phenomenal and impactful on my time here. They have helped me grow as a leader and are people I look up to. They really care about us, and that culture of care is something I really appreciate.”

Savannah DeGroot
University of Iowa student, speaking about her mentors on campus

“Pride House changed my life,” DeGroot says. “I’ve met the most amazing people through it.”

COVID-19 affected much of Pride House’s 2020 spring semester programming, but one canceled event DeGroot was helping to organize particularly stung. Called “QT Closet,” they planned to collect clothing donations from campus and community partners and set up shop in Pride House.

“It would be a sort of thrift shop for queer kids, but everything was free,” DeGroot says. “This is especially important to trans students who are trying to rebuild their wardrobes. It can be very expensive and hard to shop in a section of the store where you maybe don’t feel you belong or you get weird stares. It also can be dangerous for some people. We wanted to help combat that a bit and help to provide a space for queer clothing. I hope we get to do it this upcoming year.”

DeGroot also is using her life experiences to help future students. At the end of her first year, she was invited to join the Basic Needs Support Committee. The committee includes representatives from many areas of campus, including University Housing and Dining, the Office of Student Financial Aid, and the Division of Student Life.

“We look at ways in which we can increase accessibility and resources for students, how we can make their experiences better and easier,” DeGroot says. “I get a chance to offer my opinions and perspective as someone who came in as a homeless student. The work has been fulfilling and near and dear to my experiences.”

During her second year, DeGroot and a few other students who had experienced homelessness were paired with similar incoming students at Orientation, answering questions such as how to succeed in college and how to find a job.

DeGroot says she has been lucky to be part of the Post-Secondary Education Retention Program, a scholarship program through the Iowa Homeless Youth Centers and United Way of Central Iowa that provides her a case manager who has helped her learn how to navigate college and other areas of adult life, such as doing taxes.

“I want to help figure out how we can incorporate more of those resources into the university so that more people have access to them,” DeGroot says.

“Savannah stands out as a student who not only puts in the work toward diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, but also truly cares about the outcome.”

Emma Welch
coordinator of the Pride Alliance Center

DeGroot credits much of her professional and personal development during college to having good mentors, and three in particular.

Emily Downes, associate director of aquatics, has been her supervisor at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center since DeGroot arrived on campus and worked as a lifeguard and now head lifeguard. She has worked closely with Meghan Bullard, assistant director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, through Gamma Rho Lambda as its chapter president and as president of the Multicultural Greek Council. And Emma Welch, coordinator of the Pride Alliance Center, has become a role model and friend.

“They have just been phenomenal and impactful on my time here,” DeGroot says. “They have helped me grow as a leader and are people I look up to. They really care about us, and that culture of care is something I really appreciate.”

Welch calls DeGroot a star, both in her academics and campus engagement.

“Savannah stands out as a student who not only puts in the work toward diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, but also truly cares about the outcome,” Welch says. “She’s also a born leader who fosters space to welcome everyone’s viewpoints and perspectives and has the directive to guide her groups toward their intended goals. Savannah had a huge part in creating, organizing, and implementing the inaugural Sex Ed Summit in fall 2019. She goes above and beyond to enhance the experience of students, especially LGBTQ+-identifying students, on our campus. It’s been a true pleasure to exist in the realm of Savannah’s positivity and creative energy, and I look forward to continue working with and alongside her.”

As DeGroot heads into her final year at Iowa, she’s starting to think about life after graduation and considering working with LGBTQ+ and/or homeless communities through a nonprofit or in higher education through fraternity and sorority life.

DeGroot urges future and current college students to get involved on their campuses and to try new things.

“Give things the benefit of the doubt,” DeGroot says. “I never thought I was going to join fraternity and sorority life, and it ended up being one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. And now I’m running a Greek council and considering it as a career. Even if you don’t join an org, go to some events. We are so fortunate to have really cool events and speakers on our campus.”

And while she loves being busy and knows the joys and fulfillment that participation can bring, DeGroot also recognizes the importance of time to focus on yourself.

“Make sure when you get here that you figure out what you need to succeed in college,” DeGroot says. “Find a routine. Find the services you need. Find study spots. Figure out what college feels like to you and what you need to be successful.”