Snuggled in the corner room of the Office of Student Involvement, a bright smile and the subtle smell of tea greets students as Coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion Adam Gonzales offers a listening ear to everybody, no matter race or sexual identity.
“I get to work with a very amazing, very incredible student population,” Gonzales said. “I’m put in a position where I can reach out to these students and help them. Sometimes it’s not that they need help, but that they need someone to cheer them on. I love being that cheerleader. I love being that person that can say, ‘Hey let me pour you a cup of tea. How’s your day going?’”
Gonzales was hired last August after deciding to move from Amarillo, Texas, to be closer to his family. In Texas, he was heavily involved in advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ community as a member of the Board of Directors for Equality Texas.
Even though Gonzales was familiar with Maryville, Missouri, since he had graduated from Conception Seminary College, it was still quite a transition.
“It was new to me in the sense that I had never lived here,” Gonzales said. “I had never lived and worked in Maryville. That was a new experience; being a person of Latin descent, of having my skin be a little darker than most people around here. There are things that make me stand out in a crowd in Maryville.”
Originally, Gonzales aspired to be a priest and came to Conception Seminary College on the recommendation of a bishop. Eventually, he found that his passion didn’t necessarily lie in becoming a priest, but rather a genuine love for helping others in any way that he can.
“Looking back, it was never, ‘I want to be a priest just to be a priest,’” Gonzales said. “It was ‘I want to help people,’ and that wasn’t the place for me to do it. I don’t regret it. I don’t regret going; I don’t regret joining the monastery. I mean those experiences really did help make me who I am.”
While he didn’t go on to follow priesthood, his time at college gave him more than just friends and new experiences; he was also given a true home and a loving family.
Professor of English and humanities at Conception Seminary College Paul Johnson and B.D. Owens librarian Carolyn Johnson adopted Gonzales as an adult, which simply meant they didn’t need the consent of the biological parents.
Paul Johnson remembers exactly why and when he wanted to adopt Gonzales. After many years of getting to know Gonzales, as both a student and a friend, Paul Johnson was filling out his insurance policies and he remembered writing both his biological son and Gonzales as secondary beneficiaries.
“I remembered you had to have a relationship down, so I said ‘Peter, Son,’ and then for Adam, I had to write friend because that was the only category I had,” Paul Johnson said. “I remember looking at that and thinking, ‘That’s just wrong. He’s so much more than that.’”
While Paul Johnson was Gonzales’ teacher, Carolyn Johnson met him when they had a poetry reading and dinner hosted at their house one night.
“I usually end the night by reading one more poem. It’s always ‘Goodnight Moon,’” Carolyn Johnson said. “I found Adam had just moved up close to me so he could see the pictures and he goes, ‘Ah, this is so great, I’ve never been read to before.’ And that just blew me away … I just looked at him and I said, ‘I’m going to have to adopt you.’”
Paul Johnson and Carolyn Johnson couldn’t believe people wouldn’t want to be around him. They said anybody who talked and knew him had what they lovingly referred to as “Adam’s glow.”
Many people take for granted certain aspects of life that are usually guaranteed like parents who love and support them in all they do.
For Gonzales, he was burdened with the heavy decision of cutting off all ties with most of his biological family. When he came out to his birth mother and her husband, he was met with immediate disapproval. His mother didn’t understand.
“They weren’t real accepting,” Gonzales said. “In their words, they disagreed with my lifestyle, as they put it. It’s not a lifestyle; it’s an identity. I can’t change it. A lifestyle choice is what kind of curtain you put in your house, or what kind of car you drive or whether or not you go out and party. … This isn’t a choice. They actually cited religious reasons. They said they didn’t really want anything to do with me.”
When it came to Gonzales’ biological father, it was difficult. From the time he was born, his dad was in prison. Around the time he began coming out to his friends, his father tried getting more involved in his life after being released.
It wasn’t until his dad used a slur that Gonzales told him he was gay. After telling his father, he said if it was going to be a problem, they could go their separate ways. He was met with harassment and, by this point, he said his father wasn’t someone he wanted in his life.
“I share that story because I want people to understand that even though they may perceive us as like, ‘Oh, well, all we do is throw parades and parties ...’ there is still a reality that many people face that is very challenging, very difficult,” Gonzales said. “It’s all because of who they are. It’s not even about the choices they make; it’s who they are. And that’s enough for some people to discriminate against them, to hurt them.”
Gonzales’ childhood was painted with abuse and dark times, but through it, he was able to find comfort in the educational children’s series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“I remember as a kid watching ‘Mister Rogers’ was like my safe place,” Gonzales said. “I always loved the fact that there was this show that I could tune into where everyone was kind to each other. Everyone believed in each other. Everyone worked as a team… Maybe self-consciously that was ingrained in me.”
There were two distinct episodes that really stuck out to Gonzales.
These episodes fed into his other love: music. When he first saw a student breakdancing, he would try those same moves in front of the mirror at night. The other episode featured a DJ, and this was his first time seeing a DJ mixing music on a turntable.
While music was allowed in his house, it just wasn’t played that much. He actually won a mini-boom box in a contest at school, and it was through this that he was able to connect to hip-hop and rap.
“I would sit up at night in my closet and listen to that radio station. I remember it was called Z-93,” Gonzales said. “I was just obsessed with all kinds of music, and so when I went to college the first time, I saved up my money, and I got like a mixing board… It was just fun. I love being able to play a song and then get people dancing.”
There is only one particular song Gonzales absolutely can’t stand.
“I don’t like ‘Feliz Navidad,’” Gonzales said. “In school, I was the only kid who spoke two languages, so I speak Spanish and English. When we would have our school pageants as kids, I would always be the one picked out to sing the Spanish parts, and I’m like, ‘Ah, again.’”
Eventually, his love for music led him to teach himself how to DJ. While he doesn’t claim to be any “DJ Jazzy Jeff,” he loves using his DJing skills to play at various events like DEI’s board game night.
Gonzales has loved working with students from all different backgrounds and was ecstatic when he got his dream job.
Complex Director of Hudson and Perrin Halls Brittany Stegeman met Gonzales during a student-staff training session after being introduced as the new coordinator of diversity and inclusion.
After noticing his rainbow-colored watch band his adopted brother had given him, Stegeman found kinship with Gonzales and their friendship blossomed from there.
“I think caring and empathetic is one aspect of who he is,” Stegeman said. “Fun, energetic. Someone who knows how to bring the best out in others while not letting their own light be dimmed.”
Gonzales’ ultimate goal is to help people, whether that’s through laughter, lending a caring shoulder or even just helping others understand each other a little bit more.
“Sometimes it (a bright future) can be difficult to see that down the road,” Gonzales said. “But it’s there. It’s there if you go looking for it and if you go create it. Sometimes you’ve got to create it, and that takes some work. But I tell people, never let your past define where you’re going to go.”