As she took the podium to a standing ovation on Wednesday morning, Shirley M. Collado, newly announced as Ithaca College’s ninth president, clasped her hands over chest. “You’re filling my heart!” she told the crowd of about 225 people assembled in Emerson Suites.
It was a sentiment that seemed to run both ways. Throughout the day in a variety of settings – including two open sessions for the campus community, meetings with student media and chance encounters while on a walking tour of campus – Collado received enthusiastic expressions of greeting. She both initiated and welcomed engagement from those she met, connecting over the big issues and the personal details.
That engagement started months ago, when Collado first met with the presidential search committee. It continued throughout their interactions as she and the members of the committee, composed of students, faculty, staff and trustees, got to know one another.
"This wasn't just a job interview for some big fancy job,” she said. “It was actually about creating a partnership, building community together, and making sure that – on both sides – it really felt right, and that this was a moment for us to work together.”
Carla Tilghman '17, a senior acting major, was a two-time recipient of Collado's warm and engaging personality. She chatted with Collado between the two open sessions on Wednesday, sharing her excitement for the incoming president. Later, as Collado toured campus, she spotted Tilghman working at the snack and coffee kiosk in the Roy H. Park School of Communications.
The two were all smiles as they spoke again briefly, and Tilghman was thrilled when Collado remembered her name. But that delight was over more than a social grace: It signified something much deeper for Tilghman.
"That just shows that she's ready to delve into the issues that are on this campus, and that she's ready to be in it. She's not going to be the type of person to say hi to you and not know who you are," she said. "She's going to make a personal connection – maybe not with everyone, necessarily, because there's a lot of people on this campus – but she's definitely going to do something, she's going to be involved."
Room on the Bus
In her remarks, Collado shared that she knows the power of strong interpersonal bonds between cohorts and mentors through her own lived experience. She said that it shapes much of the work she’s done in her career thus far in terms of opening access to higher education, as well as in providing the support students need to achieve.
The daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Collado, who said she went to a mediocre Brooklyn high school and had low SAT scores, was able to attend Vanderbilt University with help from The Posse Foundation. The organization identifies promising students who are often overlooked by the college admission process, puts them through an intensive pre-college program, and sends them in cohorts, or posses, to top colleges.
She was, in fact, one of the first five Posse Scholars. It was important, she said, for all the girls’ mothers to see their daughters off to college. But since she and her cohorts couldn't afford to fly to Tennessee together with their mothers, they decided as a group to take the 26-hour bus ride from New York City to Nashville. That’s why she really considers her first cohort of Posse Scholars to be 10 people: students and mothers.
“If you get on the bus, if you're fortunate, and you have this faith your parents put all their love, heart and soul into sending you away, who's going to be sitting next to you?” she asked. “So I've dedicated my career to expanding that bus ride, and creating networks, social capital and groups that can lean on each other, and have mentors they're plugged into.”
“Every single person in this room benefits from a cohort and a mentor, and somebody who sees something in you that you can't see just yet,” she continued. “It's why I'm standing before you here today.”
Pushing the Boundaries Together
Collado frequently returned to the theme of working together in facing challenges and opportunities.
“My hope is that, with my leadership and your drive, help and trust, we're going to be pushing the boundaries and setting the national model of what a campus should look like – what happens on the ground so we all have a stake in this place, and we all have an equitable chance at making great things happen here."
Throughout the day, Collado put the onus on every single member of the campus community to get involved and go beyond their job description or area of expertise. "I will be leaning on you to create a collective vision for the college moving forward," she said during one of the open sessions.
And she admitted she won’t be afraid to ask for help. “I'll need and expect your counsel, knowledge, energy, effort and your engagement with me.” She added that no one, including her, will have all the answers to the challenges the college faces.
“But with some courage and openness, and honest investment in this place, I believe that we can mobilize Ithaca College to see its greatest moments yet," she said.