KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 14, 2022 – Katie Riedy, a University of Rhode Island Communication Studies major, has been named among the inaugural 100 recipients of the prestigious Obama-Chesky Voyager Scholarship for Public Service, providing her support to pursue her interests in LGBTQ+ issues.
Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky launched the national Voyager Scholarship, which is administered by the Obama Foundation, to nurture young leaders to confront the world’s greatest challenges. The scholarship is open to students entering their junior year of college and who are interested in a career in public service. And it provides recipients a life-changing awards package: including up to $50,000 in financial aid for their junior and senior years to help alleviate the burden of college debt; $10,000 to create their own travel/work experience the summer before their senior year; and a network of fellow scholars and mentors to support them.
“Honestly, when I first saw the email that I received the scholarship, I sat there shaking for like 30 seconds because I was so excited. It really is such a huge opportunity,” says Riedy, who minors in Gender and Women’s Studies and art. “I’m going to be able to graduate without college debt now, make connections with the other Voyagers, and be able this summer to have a hands-on experience that I’m able to design and implement. It gives you a lot of new skills.”
Riedy ’24, who is originally from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and now lives in Kingston, has been interested in LGBTQ+ issues and public service ever since coming out in high school. Even as a child, she sought justice, and her parents called her “their little lawyer” for the way she defended her siblings from discipline.
“It is definitely the area I’m primarily interested in, especially as a queer woman,” she says. “That has been something that has affected me throughout my life. Coming to URI and being a part of this community has definitely given me a large direction in my life.”
Growing up in a very conservative and religious community made coming out very difficult. A youth leader in her church, she was told she couldn’t lead youth Bible studies, and members of the congregation stopped talking to her. In 2018, she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But lacking a support network, she ended up dropping out and eventually leaving home. With no place to go, she met a member of URI’s Gender and Sexuality Center through a mutual friend and was able to find a place to stay as she worked to raise money to return to college.
“My dad has come around a little bit. But there was a lot of tension with my parents at that time as they tried to process it,” she says. “But luckily I was able to make it through and make it here.”
Riedy enrolled at URI in the fall of 2021 and found her community, especially at the Gender and Sexuality Center, where she volunteered even before enrolling. Despite standing 5-foot-0, she’s hard to miss as she walks on campus, with her pink hair and a distinctive campy style – big earrings, plenty of accessories, and clothing (some she’s made herself) mainly in pink, red and black.
“I feel personal expression is such an important part of being able to navigate the world,” she says. “I like walking into a room and being instantly recognizable. But the other aspect is I have been through so many hardships in life that I don’t see the point in purposely doing anything that would bring me less happiness than something else would.”
She enjoys cooking and hosting friends, and she’s an avid reader of essays on feminist theory, queer theory and philosophy. “I like thinking about the way the world works and seeing how all of these different structures we have connect together to what we are,” she says.
On the Dean’s List each semester, she carries a 3.93 grade-point average, and she’s been a leader on campus on LGBTQ+ issues. As a member of the Trans Inclusion Committee, she has worked on such issues as gender-inclusive bathrooms and inclusive curriculum.
“We want to make sure that every student at URI at some point in their normal curriculum is exposed to LGBTQ+ issues,” she says. “I feel that’s one of the big issues. If you’re never exposed to those issues, how are you going to be able to respond in an appropriate way when you have a coworker or employee who is queer? Also, if queer students see this in their curriculum, they’re going to feel accepted and included. And they’re going to learn more about themselves.”
At the Gender and Sexuality Center, which provides support to URI’s LGBTQ+ community, Riedy is the event planning and education specialist, assisting on large-scale events such as the Big Gay Picnic and providing education and awareness as a Safe Zone facilitator. She is also a facilitator of Gal Pals, the center’s discussion group on LGBTQ+ women’s issues.
“Katie works tirelessly,” says Annie Russell, director of center. “I know I can count on Katie as a staff member. She’s insightful, dedicated, thorough, and creative in her approach to work, and these traits are among the many that have earned her this scholarship.”
Along with Russell, who inspired her to major in communications, Riedy has also found a mentor in Kathleen McIntyre, associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies. “I absolutely adore working with her,” Riedy says. “She definitely has taught me a lot in my classes.”
McIntyre, who suggested Riedy apply for the Voyager Scholarship, says Riedy is a star student on many fronts – a skillful writer and researcher, and a great speaker who’s enthusiastic to hear others’ views. And she takes every project to the next level.
“This scholarship is just an incredible opportunity for someone who’s interested in leadership, who wants to build community and cares about policy issues nationally and internationally,” says McIntyre. “Katie wants to go to other places and work with transgender communities and make sure they are visible and included. I thought she’d be great. She’s such a leader already on campus; she needs a bigger venue.”
For her summer Voyager experience, Riedy is weighing several ways of working with LGBTQ+ youth who are facing major obstacles.
Florida and Texas have passed anti-transgender measures such as restricting treatments that support a person’s gender identity or preventing teachers from even discussing LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom. Working with an established group, or even on her own, she hopes to set up education programs for transgender youth in either state.
Or she may volunteer with an organization working to alleviate LGBTQ+ youth homelessness. According to the government website youth.gov, about 20% to 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+, she says.
After she’s done with college, Riedy’s dream career would be to direct a women’s center or gender and sexuality center on a college campus.
“I would love to do what Annie Russell does,” she says. “College is such an important transitionary stage in young people’s lives, especially for LGBTQ+ students, who often need extra support as they discover their identity or begin to express themselves in college. It’s really a place you can either fail or you can rise to the top.”