One day, she noticed a sign on campus advertising a “Big Gay Picnic.” She wandered into the LGBTQ event and offered to help. She made table decorations.
Her life changed in an instant.
“Everyone was so friendly and enthusiastic,” she says. “I knew I had found the place I wanted to be.”
That same day, Annie Russell, center director, offered her a job as creative marketing specialist for the LGBTQ Center—now called the Gender and Sexuality Center.
It’s been three years, and Koller is still coordinating the center’s Facebook page and other social media sites “to spread a message of acceptance and inclusion” on campus and beyond.
The 23-year-old Warwick resident will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and is exploring jobs with tech consulting firms throughout the world.
Growing up in Ocoee, a small town outside Orlando, Fla., Koller was a tinkerer as a kid and teen, building everything from theater sets to tiny mousetrap cars. She excelled academically in high school, especially in math and science, fields often dominated by men.
“I remember being at an engineering competition with 300 other students and the host of the awards ceremony thanked me for being the only woman in the room. I still cringe thinking about it,” she says. “I don’t think of myself as a woman. Even before I got the language, I identified as gender neutral.”
That summer, her eyes opened even wider when she took a summer residential class for high school students at Brown University: “The History of Human Sexuality.” She had never explored gender studies. In fact, she says, “I didn’t even know it was a topic. Everything just burst into color for me.”
After high school, she attended Boston University but “ran out of money” after one year, and returned home to study at Vallencia College in Orlando. In 2012, Koller and her family moved to Rhode Island so her father could pursue a business opportunity. Koller joined URI in the fall of 2013 after visiting with Joan Peckham, chair of the computer science and statistics department.
“She sat down with me and helped me figure out my transfer credits and what I needed to do to graduate,” says Koller. “That just blew me away. That kind of personal attention is something I never found at my other universities. Here, I’ve never felt like a number.”
One of her highlights at URI was attending the Grace Hopper Conference for women in computer science in Houston, Texas. She was among 13,000 people.
“It sounds cheesy, but I got to meet women from all over the world with similar interests who are tackling challenges in the tech industry,” she says. “It was mind-blowing.”
She also coordinated URI’s computer science summer camp for kids, ages 8 to 14. “You give kids code, and they take it and run with it,” she says. “It’s really fun to watch them light up.”
The center has been her home away from home. The staff is nurturing and supportive, she says. “I feel heard, and I feel accepted for who I am in every way.”
These days, she’s finishing up her classes and helping her parents, Sarah and Ron Koller, with their new restaurant, the Malted Barley Providence on Westminster Street, a block from the Providence Performing Arts Center.
She’s also having fun. She’s an artistic collaborator and model in the steampunk community, a genre of science fiction and fantasy with Victorian elements and steam-powered machines. Koller makes accessories, including top hats and feathered hair clips.
“I don’t want to ever feel limited by one type of expression,” she says. “I choose to live fearlessly.”
Photo by Nora Lewis