At the beginning of freshman year, most students at Boston College find their niche at the Student Involvement Fair. Bombarded by hundreds of students and rows of tables, they sign their free time away to upperclassmen pledging interesting meetings, hands-on experience, or just meaningful social opportunities. The listserv emails pile up in your bc.edu inbox, and the club you signed up for because its president pretty much begged you seems to never stop sending out updates. Paralyzed by choice, you may never become invested in any of these organizations.
Or you do what Gabby Zabbo, CSON ’18, did.
Overwhelmed by the options at the 2014 Student Involvement Fair, Zabbo walked back up to Fitzpatrick Hall without finding a single club that suited her. As she crossed College Road, she noticed one small table, far away from the rest that were festooned with decorations on Stokes Lawn.
“Did you know you can’t have sex on campus?” one sign read.
Well, that certainly got her attention.
She started talking with a few of the upperclassmen at the table, who said they were part of Students for Sexual Health, a club on campus that is technically neither of those things. Since it is not a registered student organization due to the topics it tends to discuss—sexual health and safety in a college environment, as well as being a subsidiary of Planned Parenthood—it can only inhabit the space on CoRo, considered “off campus.”
“It was the only club on campus that wasn’t allowed, which was very attractive to me for some reason,” Zabbo said. “I had like an innate need to rebel, so I was like ‘This is the one that I need to do.’”
Four years later, Zabbo has turned a serendipitous meeting on Upper into a college-career investment, from active member to co-president. In the nursing program, she has contributed hours of her time and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to learn more about providing the best care. She even wants to come back next year to become a nurse practitioner.
And she’s worried she may not even graduate.
Running an underground club that is best known to the administration for distributing condoms in dorm rooms does not make for a stress-free life.
There’s the day-to-day operations of running the club, mobilizing people, and outlining topics for meetings and educational materials. And then there are calls and emails to the American Civil Liberties Union, to make sure everything is legal and within the rights of students on a Catholic campus. In a nutshell, Zabbo plays the roles of a general manager, teacher, and a lawyer.
Despite her involvement in SSH over her four years, some things have been out of her hands. While 90 percent of students approved of having sexual education and health resources on campus in a 2009 UGBC referendum, it was an opinion at odds with the University. The semester before Zabbo arrived at BC, the administration and SSH clashed over the latter’s institution of “Safe Sites,” dorm rooms on campus that distributed condoms to students who showed up. Following the administration’s threat of disciplinary action against the residents of rooms that were Safe Sites, SSH switched to tabling on CoRo.
The Heights detailed much of SSH’s history last year. The current administration did not reply to requests for comment at the time of publication.
Zabbo strives to make every minute of her work count, but there’s only so much she can control. She tries to shoot for tabling on CoRo every other week, but the weather and other extenuating circumstances can hinder that plan. Sheer numbers can also prevent her from doing what she’d like. Since the club only gains exposure on Upper, the window to reach upperclassmen is limited. The number of active members is low compared to registered student organizations on campus. With few hands, SSH cannot do as much as Zabbo would like it to.
Her newest plan circumvents the issue of reach for SSH. Its program, which is a more convenient way to help students, was launched on a website last year. The service will not be stated here for the sake of privacy, but it was cleared by the ACLU before the program was developed. When Zabbo launched it, she had some apprehension about her status at BC if the administration found out. Though it has waned over time, she still carries some anxiety.
“Would they expel me? I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what they would do. It’s an interesting position to be in.”
Zabbo wanted to go to BC before she visited campus. Once she was accepted, she made the trip, and instantly fell in love. The nursing program no doubt helped—Zabbo’s mother is also a nurse, rotating around in maternal health over her career. She thought she would follow in her footsteps and become a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, but once she found SSH, she shifted her focus to reproductive health in general.
One of her clinical experiences this semester falls into that category. Working on a gynecological oncology floor, Zabbo finds it rewarding, intense, and sad, but she is optimistic that some of the patients only need preventive care. Even against the grueling hours, Zabbo has used the time blocks to structure her training for an upcoming half-marathon.
With the passion for the subject material mastered, Zabbo has also made great strides in the academic field of nursing through the Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Zabbo and her professor, Joyce Edmonds, just published a paper on labor symptoms in the Nursing for Women’s Health Journal. They’ve applied to take its contents on the road to Kentucky to a conference for the International Childbirth Education Association that is coming up in April. It wouldn’t be the first time Zabbo has traveled for the nursing program. In lieu of studying abroad, Zabbo went to Switzerland for a month over the summer for a global health course, where she bonded with fellow BC nursing students and expanded her knowledge from hands-on medical practice to public policy in regard to health insurance.
Zabbo does not keep her love and skill for nursing to herself. Her friends have been the beneficiaries of her knowledge and help from the very beginning of the rigorous program that churns out just a handful of graduates each year.
“Since day one of orientation, Gabby has been there helping me study and get through difficult courses,” Emily Merino, CSON ’18, said.
Most clubs don’t just fade out one year, ceasing to exist as membership dwindles or an interest falls to the wayside. But Zabbo believes SSH is the exception to the rule. Once a leader leaves, it is always at risk of being forgotten. She wants to help with that, whether she comes back for a fifth year or not. Past leadership has passed down knowledge and advice even as they moved states and jobs, and Zabbo wants to continue that tradition. To her, there are things that people would just ignore if certain groups on campus didn’t try to push the issue. Zabbo likens the need for sexual health resources on campus to the need for an LGBTQ+ resource center for identifying students like her, who don’t fall into the normative gender or sexual orientation.
Her reasoning for both of these things is in a Jesuit vein, focusing on cura personalis, or care of the whole person. The language she uses mirrors such used in a UGBC resolution for sexual health resources last year—people are sexual beings, and ignoring sexuality or sexual expression is a refusal to care for the whole person.
“I just feel that they don’t have to be conflicting ideals,” she said.
But Catholic justifications aside, Zabbo has another basic reason for pouring her soul into an organization that may not exist in the future: She cares about people. She doesn’t want to control the conversation, she wants people to come to her with what they want to talk about, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a small table on CoRo.
“I want people to be safe, more than anything,” she said.
Featured Image by Elizabeth Barrett / Heights Editor