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Chancellor’s Science Scholar Kipp Williams looks through a deconstructed computer in the Applied Engineering Lab in Sitterson Hall. He is interested in the intersection of technology and social justice work. (photo by Donn Young)

Non-binary code

A Chancellor’s Science Scholar is helping to diversify the computer industry by building a visible community of LGBTQ professionals in the coding world.

More than 300 LGBTQ students from universities across the South are expected to convene at Carolina in November 2020 for the nation’s first college hackathon for queer students in technology.

Hackathons, in which students gather to code projects, learn programming skills and network, are key ways students get their start in technology-related fields. But they can be intimidating and unwelcoming, especially for queer students, said Kipp Williams, a junior computer science and public policy major in the College of Arts & Sciences. Williams is founder and executive director of queer_hack, the Carolina student group planning the event.

The hackathon is one way Williams hopes to build a visible, networked and supportive community of LGBTQ people in technology who can help diversify the industry.

Williams knows the value of support from his own experience. Although he loved math and science and attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, he assumed he would pursue public policy or political science in college.

But three UNC programs — Chancellor’s Science Scholars, Honors Carolina and the Campus Y — as well as studies in computer science and public policy have helped shape Williams’ broader path that includes science.

“I’m really interested in the intersection of technology and social justice work,” Williams said. “I’m thinking about how we can solve social issues using science and math.”

Williams’ pursuit of computer science resulted from his participation in Chancellor’s Science Scholars. Its requirement that scholars pursue a STEM major prompted Williams to sign up for a computer science course his first year. Thirty students were in his introductory honors course.

The small class size gave Williams the comfort level he needed to speak up, ask lots of questions and interact more with the professor and his classmates. The final course project — a hackathon — sealed the deal for his new-found discipline.

“I stayed up all night with my brand-new friends and tried to figure out how to code the project,” Williams recalled. “That experience was so amazing. It was the moment I figured out this is cool!”

While Williams’ love of computer science was developing, so was his understanding of social justice. He’d heard about the Campus Y from his grandmother, a 1959 Carolina graduate. But a student member at UNC’s Week of Welcome sold him on joining. Williams applied for and was named a first-year member-at-large, learning as a member of the executive board about social justice, direct service, advocacy and activism. He served as director of membership and alumni relations his sophomore year and was elected co-president in March.

“A former chancellor at UNC called the Campus Y the conscience of the university,” Williams said. “That resonated with me. My involvement in the Campus Y has allowed me to think critically about some of the issues in the tech industry.” The Campus Y is also providing seed funding and support for queer_hack through its CUBE social innovation incubator.

Williams credits Chancellor’s Science Scholars in particular with providing a strong and supportive community as he struggled with a major life change.

“I’m a transgender man. I came out right before college. So I entered UNC at a time when I was really nervous about life,” Williams said.

The merit-based scholarship program promotes diversity and inclusion in science and technology fields through a combination of academic advising, connections to research opportunities and graduate studies, leadership training and community-building for its 40-member scholar cohorts each year.

“CSS has been the backbone of support for me my whole time here at UNC,” Williams said. “My friends gave me the strength to be myself both in and outside of the classroom. My goal with queer_hack is to create a support system that empowers the queer students who come after me.”

By Cyndy Falgout