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“It’s Always Been the Heart of Us”

Five of the many couples that Mills has brought together share their love stories.

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Celebrating couples who found each other at Mills

By Shelley Moench-Kelly

Mills College is not just a campus for intellectual pursuits. It’s an amazing setting for people to meet and develop significant relationships—some of which turn romantic in nature. Here are five such couples—together anywhere from one to three-plus decades—who happily share their own love stories.

Michael Cross + Katja Geldhof

When Michael Cross, MFA ’02, first saw Katja Geldhof ’03 at F.W. Olin Library in late 2001, he experienced what he now describes as a shock of recognition.

“It was like a flash of lightning that blinds you. I had this real feeling that we had met before,” he says. “I was a little shy, so it took a while to kind of warm up. But I think the time that I decided to talk to Katja was when I started to notice that she was sort of waiting [at the fountain] for me!”

She corrects her husband of 19 years: “Lingering,” Geldhof says with a smile.

“I remember feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, something is happening,’” she adds. “In that moment, the stakes just felt a lot higher because I just felt this sense of potential. I just felt like Michael was really different than anyone else I had met.”

Now nearing their 20th wedding anniversary, Geldhof and Cross have survived many challenges but remain positive. He notes, “[Longevity] is about navigating those obstacles. It’s what makes the relationship so much stronger.”

“Be prepared to grow,” she adds. “Love is not static and it’s not something that you encapsulate on the day of your marriage. We have evolved so much individually and as a couple. And we’re committed to that.”

The couple agrees that it’s a healthy thing to pursue couples’ therapy, even during times of peace and happiness “just to check in,” as Cross adds, “to see where we are in our relationship and just be open to communication!” Geldhof encourages others to “work on your relationship so that it’s fulfilling, and be open to change!”

Despite graduating years ago—he earned his MFA in 20th- and 21st-century American poetry, and she holds a degree in history and journalism—the couple still lives near Mills and visits the campus frequently with their 10-year-old son and the family dogs. “Mills has a really special place in my heart,” says Geldhof, who also worked for the College as an alumnae outreach coordinator from 2012 to 2015.

“We’ve always lived in the vicinity,” Cross adds. “It’s always been kind of like the heart of us.”

Joy Dixit Fowler + Tom Fowler

Joy Dixit Fowler ’87 graduated from Mills with a degree in administration and legal processes, and she has been married to her husband, Tom, for 34 years. They also share one grown daughter, Olivia. Tom graduated with a chemistry degree from UC Berkeley, but when he met his future wife, he was living in Ege Hall on the Mills campus due to overcrowding at Cal.

“The [Ege Hall men] would have dinner in Founders Commons, and that’s where I met Tom,” Fowler says. “We had friends in common, and his family lives in the area. We were able to go off campus and do things with his family, and that was great. It helped me get to know him.”

Though Fowler’s family is Nepalese, they emigrated to the United States from the Philippines. She was initially focused on her studies and eventual career and had no idea she’d meet her life partner during her time at Mills. But fate—and hunger pangs—had other plans.

“The universe just brought him and set him down with a dinner plate right next to me. Now, we are growing old together!” Fowler says. “We communicate very well and we kind of think the same way. He’s more analytical and methodical than I am, but I think we complement each other very well.”

As for the secrets to the couple’s longevity? She notes: “These circumstances brought us together and here we are, and it’s just been wonderful. He picked me among all the women at Mills, and I’m lucky because he was at Mills!” She also advises couples—whether they’re in new or long-term relationships—about the importance of love, support, and taking care of each other.

“You can’t ‘think’ it, you just have to ‘live’ it. That’s what I’ve done, and it’s been wonderful!” she says.

Colleen Kimseylove + Isabel “Iz” Kimseylove

Colleen Kimseylove ’13 and Iz Kimseylove ’14’s wedding went viral for all the right reasons—when they got married in 2018, they opted for a “kitten hour” (rather than a cocktail hour) where guests were invited to pet six kittens from the Seattle Animal Shelter—all of which were adopted after the wedding. Buzzfeed picked up on the story, and Internet celebrity followed.

But cats are just one part of their story. “I’ll tell you how we met if you’d like,” Colleen says with a mischievous smile.

“You’re so funny,” Iz interjects.

Colleen replies: “I am very funny. I was an incredibly sophisticated, worldly 19-year-old, and I signed up to host prospective students. I remember just looking at [Iz] and being like, ‘that is a darling baby butch… what an infant!’ I think I literally put my hands on my knees and said ‘You are so cute!’ And I nicknamed Iz ‘Charlotte’ because that was the girliest name I could think of.”

That nickname, however, almost cost Iz a spot on the Mills crew team because the coach saw her name as “Isabel” on his roster: “I almost failed crew because the coach thought my name was ‘Charlotte’!”

“Now, we are 30 and 31. We’ve really grown up together. The process of figuring out how to be adults in the world together brought out how to love one another and be with one another,” Colleen says. “It has been the most wonderful adventure I’ve ever been on.”

“It’s good to keep things spicy,” Iz says. “And Colleen is very, very funny. Please get that!”

Such a sparkling relationship must have a solid foundation, and the College is it for these two. “Mills has always been a huge part of our love story. Mills is so magical, that the ability to be somewhere that was physically so safe, and to feel like we could escape the world and not worry and have a little refuge to get to know one another and let our relationship begin,” Colleen says. “It’s really pretty special.”

As for advice for those in new or existing relationships, Iz says, “Nothing is as urgent as you think it is. It’s okay to take your time to figure things out.”

“I encourage people to have clarity about what they really, really want in a relationship,” Colleen adds. “The right one will say yes.”

Kristine Vejar + Adrienne Rodriguez

Kristine Vejar and Adrienne Rodriguez graduated from Mills in 2001 with majors in art history. They co-own natural dyeing studio A Verb for Keeping Warm (“in many respects, it’s like our child,” Vejar notes) in Oakland, where they are also moms to a playful pup named Calliope.

Even though they shared a major, the couple met at a house party. Vejar remembers: “I really loved cooking… that was my creative outlet. I would cook a large meal and invite people. I really didn’t even socialize at these gatherings. I really was there to cook and feed people. Adrienne would frequently come in to say hello and chat.”

For her part, Rodriguez recalls that Vejar was “intriguing because she had just returned from a study abroad in India to learn about its art and architecture, seemed really smart and really engaged. I was just like, ‘Wow, like who’s this girl?’ She knew her stuff and she was very curious. She was always cooking, and I always found that, like, super… just very sweet and inviting and comforting.”

Vejar attributes the couple’s longevity to, among other things, their compatible—if not slightly opposite—personalities: “Adrienne can be very agreeable and lighthearted, and I can be very serious. That kind of lighthearted playful energy is one of the reasons I was and I still am drawn to Adrienne.”

Their love for Mills College runs deep, and the recent transition has been jarring. “If you’re going take it away from me completely, I’m going to have my hackles up,” Vejar says. “Mills is such a special place. I feel like—especially where the current conversation is societally, whether it’s about human rights, racial diversity, or social justice—Mills has been so far ahead of the game and such a leader, but never recognized as such.”

“I think culturally for me, Mills was extremely safe feeling. You could really cultivate relationships much more easily because people have already been through a filter of some sort,” Rodriguez adds. “They didn’t choose a big PAC-12 school; they chose Mills. So, you’re already getting this beautiful group of people that hold the same values as you, like diversity, and hearing about women’s contributions to history, and its intersections with race and class.”

As for their longevity and advising others regarding relationships, Vejar asserts that knowing yourself is crucial, as well as understanding your expectations and those of your partner.

Rodriguez concurs, noting also that “listening, validating, and compromise are really key things that I try to keep in mind all the time; and communication.” The pair’s creative pursuits, she says, are an important “form of self-care, which I think is vital to having a very balanced life, too.”

What’s next for this artistic couple? They held a Zoom wedding in 2020 due to the pandemic and are now planning an in-person celebration for the 20th anniversary of when they became a couple, after Vejar returned from her Fulbright trip to India. “We’ve just been waiting and watching the pandemic to see where it goes,” she says. “But it seems like we could have an outdoor gathering.”

And true to her lighthearted, fun-loving nature, Rodriguez adds, “Yeah. I really want mariachis!”

Laila Ibrahim + Rinda Bartley

It’s a rare couple that met when both were students at Mills, but even rarer is one with a child who attended as well.

Laila Ibrahim graduated in 1988 and studied psychology with an emphasis on child development. She is a published author of six books. Rinda Bartley attended Mills for her teaching credential and graduated in 1986.

The couple met in the mid-1980s at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, not long after Ibrahim had enrolled for her first year and Bartley for her credential.

At least, that’s Ibrahim’s memory, but Bartley chimes in. “I’ll tell you when you’re wrong!” she says with a laugh.

Ibrahim also recalls that they were part of a circle of young women at Mills, but also kept bumping into each other at church. “Mills and what it stands for and what it offered to each of us [were] important parts of our lives,” Bartley says.

The couple began spending more time together. “We’d take Friday nights just to spend time together, you know, to cry into our teacups and stuff,” Bartley says. “And gradually, our relationship just kind of developed.”

“We were just good friends. And then we realized we were becoming more than friends,” Ibrahim adds. “I was still at Mills, so I was 21. Rinda was a little older—she’s six years older than me.”

“I robbed the cradle!” Bartley says wryly.

A mutual friend asked Ibrahim when the pair was going connect: “Rinda’s the kind of person you marry. And I’m too young to be with the kind of person you marry. But then I realized, well, you don’t want to throw something this great away,” she notes with a loving side-hug to Bartley.

The couple have two grown daughters—including Maya Ibrahim-Bartley ’18—and a toy Australian shepherd called Hazel. They offer profound commentary on their longevity, which doubles as advice for those in new and ongoing relationships.

Bartley notes that it’s important for each partner to develop the “self” within and find the balance to keep the relationship going. “Also, put an emphasis on whatever’s going fulfill you and be encouraging and supporting of that,” she adds. “Take every opportunity you can to be each other’s cheerleaders and keep talking through the hard times.”

Ibrahim adds her take: “You cannot change the other person, so work on your own personal growth. If you are having really big feelings about something, that’s something that you need to look at. In every long-term relationship, there are times when you don’t feel that connected to each other. Don’t freak out about that. Just let it be, have respect for each other, and trust that the deep connection will come back.”

Mills Campus Mixers

We know from many of you that numerous Mills women met their future husbands at mixers and dances with students from Cal, Stanford, St. Mary’s, etc., and that some of those events were even held on the Mills campus—but there isn’t much solid info on those get-togethers in the archives! Vintage issues of the Mills Weekly hold some clues, including an article in the edition published September 20, 1939 with the headline “Hall Dances to Fete Entering Students.” The piece begins with the following line: “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and from many a Mills no-date dance, romances spring.” If you met your spouse at one of these events on the Mills campus, reach out to us at We’d love to tell your story.