Shirley Collado still remembers the bus ride.
Shortly after Collado, now the president of Ithaca College in upstate New York, graduated from high school in Brooklyn in 1990, she boarded a bus bound for Nashville and Vanderbilt University, her home for four years.
She left behind an Afro-Caribbean immigrant community bubbling with culture: a pizza joint on one corner, an empanada stand across the street, different languages shouted joyfully up and down the block. Her outfit that late summer day was an expression of what she called her “evolving feminist” personality: ripped jeans, a faded, worn T-shirt, suede combat boots, and concise hair, bucking the trend of long locks traditionally worn by Dominican Catholic young women.
She stepped off the bus and” “into a different planet,” she recalled. Vanderbilt was predominately white, Christian, and conservative. Collado stood out, and she knew it.
But she wasn’t deterred. Her mission was twofold: Vanderbilt was going to help her get a college education — she would be the first in her family to do so — and she was going to help Vanderbilt increase its diversity.
Now 48 and the leader of a predominantly white institution — and the first Dominican American president of a four-year college — Collado knows what it feels like to be the only person of color in the room. She knows the pitfalls of a student body and faculty dominated by only one demographic and how many students are left behind when that happens. She’s been ready for a change for decades.