Siara Tirado would walk to within 50 yards of the building every single day, and no further. She wanted to look inside, but instead would pretend to read on a bench or duck into a neighboring building to eat lunch. She’d stay close enough to Pride Commons to glance at the big windows, the beautiful rainbows and the door. For the first two months of Tirado’s freshman year, she’d walk, sit, pretend and wait. Hoping for a moment when no one else was in sight, which she began to realize would be an endless exercise on a campus of more than 68,000 students.

“I remember thinking, ‘What if someone sees me when I walk inside? Am I ready for this?’” says Tirado, who is now in her senior year. “But I also knew that I couldn’t linger in darkness forever.”

Finally, she worked up the nerve to hustle over to the door and enter Pride Commons, which is a LGBTQ+ friendly gathering space located in Ferrell Commons on UCF’s main campus. She saw students doing homework on couches. The big windows she’d seen from the outside were casting bright light inside. One student looked up at Tirado and said, “I like your skirt.”

“I heard that and thought, ‘What did I fear all this time?’ ” Tirado says.

In the weeks that followed, Tirado would be elected to UCF’s Lavender Council, the student advisory board that interacts with faculty, staff and LGBTQ+ Student Support Services. She’d help connect students to Zebra Coalition, which is a local nonprofit that provides shelter and mental health resources, and to Knights Pantry, which provides food for UCF students who are struggling financially — with drop-offs at Pride Commons.

“This isn’t a collection of buildings and rooms,” Tirado says of the UCF campus. “It’s people, and it feels like home.”

Spend one minute with Tirado and you’d never believe she was once a shy teenager. Or that she came to UCF from a small high school intent on studying English literature because it might allow her to remain quiet and isolated.

“I really wanted to be a lawyer,” Tirado says, “but the idea of a person ‘like me’ speaking in front of adults seemed petrifying. Honestly, I didn’t think about what I’d do in my 20s because I wasn’t sure if I’d even make it that far. It always felt like the world hated me.”

She figured she’d disappear to a college in the Northeast or out West. At the time of her research of universities, Tirado noticed on the Campus Pride Index that UCF ranked No. 1 in Florida for its LGBTQ+ services and among the top schools nationally (and it remains one of the top universities in Florida for LGBTQ+ inclusion, according to the organization). She enrolled, arrived and discovered something about her life.

“I went from wondering how I’d ever survive another four years of being outcast in school to realizing I’m valuable,” she says. “When I walked into Pride Commons, I stopped being scared.”

Michael Nunes ’18MA is the coordinator of LGBTQ+ Student Support Services at UCF, where he’s earned a master’s degree in counselor education from and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology. Everyone who knows the bandwidth it takes to run his department while caring about each person says Nunes is perfectly wired for his role. Nine years ago, he was a junior-college transfer who happened to walk into a building that had opened that same fall: Pride Commons.

“I came to hang out and eat free food,” Nunes says. “At the time, I had no idea about the impact of the services. In a sea of students, the people who are most often overlooked can come and discover that they matter.”

Nunes has walked in the shoes of the uncertain student to the confident professional.

“The most rewarding part of this job is seeing students thrive in the face of challenges,” he says. “It can be heartbreaking to meet a student who’s stressed out about entering a new environment, becoming an adult, keeping up with school, handling finances … and then having the added life stressor of coming out and being known.”

LGBTQ+ Student Support Services provides paths through those challenges. Some are as simple as the Safe Zone placards around campus that serve as subtle reminders that sexual orientation and gender identity can be expressed and discussed without fear of discrimination. Nunes has a staff of two in LGBTQ+ Student Support Services, so he meets with the 15 students on UCF’s Lavender Council to find out what works and what could be improved.

“One of the things UCF does best is link the life of a student to their future,” says Nicole Henry ’10 ’15MS. Henry works in UCF Global, primarily helping to onboard students and faculty who have immigrated to the U.S. She also serves as vice president of the Pride Faculty and Staff Association (PFSA), which has had representation from each of UCF’s 13 colleges. When Henry came to UCF in 2006 as a music student, she was pleasantly surprised to meet people from all backgrounds and communities.

“I found people to be open and natural,” she says. “The biggest change since then is the way services have become more visible and easily integrated. I love being a part of it, and helping students see their value.”

In April 2022, Henry had the honor of passing out stoles to 53 students at UCF’s Lavender Graduation, which is a special ceremony to recognize LGBTQ+ students who have successfully completed their degrees. She also participates in the Alliance Mentoring Program, where faculty members provide career guidance and encouragement for LGBTQ+ students who might wonder how they’ll navigate life beyond UCF.

“When you hear of ‘inclusion’ at UCF, it isn’t just a word we use so we can check a box,” says Henry, who has also earned a maser’s in management. “It’s baked into the culture here. We live and breathe it every day. For students who need to see light in the darkness, we provide support every day, for four years or however long it takes, until you see it.”

On the other side of the door at Pride Commons, where sunlight seems to pour in no matter the forecast, you’ll often find Tirado. In an unlikely twist, a few weeks after tentatively coming inside for the first time, she began working at the front desk. Her smile is often what students see when they take their own intimidating first steps to find direction.

“I see myself in them,” Tirado says. The girl who three years ago looked for ways to blend into the background now has her sights set on law school. She compares her growth to that of a chrysalis. “The 18-year-old Siara always had potential to be something special. I just needed to find sunlight so I could shine.”