What promises did you make to yourself as we collectively struggle to emerge from the shadows of bruising isolation and racial strife of the past 18 months?
What I’ve heard from many—and what I’m saying to myself—sounds something like this: Be authentic. Choose impact over prestige. Align our actions with what we really value.
So easy to say or write. Living that takes courage.
That’s why I was impressed this week when I learned who will be the next chief executive of College Track.
College Track got started in 1997 when Laurene Powell Jobs and Carlos Watson realized that students who were first in their family to go to college got little guidance about how to get there. These days, the organization serves several thousand students—from high school through college, making a 10-year long commitment to guiding them. In June, long-time chief executive, Elissa Salas, stepped down.
This week, College Track announced that Shirley M. Collado, currently serving as the ninth president of Ithaca College, would take the job of president and CEO of the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit. Collado was the first Dominican-American woman to run a four-year college or university institution in the U.S.; she was also the first woman of color to serve as president of Ithaca, a college in upstate New York with an enrollment of about 6,000 students.
Voluntarily step away from the perch of a college president? That’s hardly the “usual” path for a rising higher ed leader.
And yet it’s because so little of Collado’s story has been usual that she’s consciously making another unusual move. “I wasn’t planning on making a transition,” she told me during a phone call this week. “But this past year exposed huge inequities that are very present, even in incredible academic opportunities.”
Seeing inequities for low-income students worsen during the past year became an urgent call to action for Collado. And she’s never been one to shy away from hard work.
Collado grew up in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, the child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Her father drove a taxi. Her mother and other women in her family worked in factories making baby clothes. Collado wound up raising her two younger brothers and was working by the time she was 11 years old. College didn’t seem like an option.
But a fledgling organization called the Posse Foundation, saw something different: Potential. With help from Posse, after high school Collado found herself on a Greyhound bus heading to college at Vanderbilt University with a small “posse” of other first-generation students.
That experience, followed by graduate work at Duke University, transformed her life. Collado began forging a path that would lead her to earn graduate degrees from Duke University, to help grow the Posse Foundation itself and to become president of Ithaca in 2017.
Along the way, Collado supported many students but remained acutely aware that many first-gen college students wrestle with challenges that others simply don’t see.
When Collado arrived for her first meeting with the Ithaca College community, countless students lined up to shake her hand. Among them was a young Latina student, nervously chatting with someone in Spanish on her cell phone as she waited in line. When the student finally reached Collado, she grew teary. “She said, ‘Can I hug you? I can’t believe the President of my university is Dominican!” Collado recalls. It turned out the girl was sharing the experience by phone with her mother. “That moment really crystallized for me the weight of representing the future for that student—and for many others,” Collado says.
During her tenure, Collado put students in the center of the conversation, aiming to “make sure everyone feels they have a stake in the conversation and in the work.” She recruited a top-notch team of senior women leaders, including people of color and many who had been first-generation students themselves. One of those recruits, Provost and Executive Vice President La Jerne Terry Cornish, will serve as Ithaca’s interim president for the coming school year. Working with Cornish, Collado oversaw the development of a five year plan for Ithaca’s future.
“From the beginning, President Collado has been a change agent,” wrote Ithaca Trustees, David H. Lissy and Jim Nolan, in a letter to the college community. “She brought to Ithaca College a deep understanding of the importance of making higher education accessible and affordable, and why that has such a positive impact not only on students and their families but also on the entire IC ‘family.’”
But when College Track called, Collado felt once again profoundly tugged by the question of how to break down barriers for first-gen students and to foster conditions for success across a multitude of institutions.
Collado’s values cast the deciding vote. “She will take College Track to new heights, inspiring and empowering the next generation of college-bound students to do what she has done: pursue their dreams, blaze new trails, and lift as they climb,” wrote College Track chair Laurene Powell Jobs in a statement.
“The sobering reality is that talent is everywhere but opportunities are not,” Collado says. “The vision of College Track so closely aligns with what I’ve tried to do throughout my career and at Ithaca. I just couldn’t ignore this call to serve and serve at scale.”