For Dr. DeRionne P. Pollard, college represents one of the last places where the American dream can truly be manifested. Growing up in a low-income household on the South Side of Chicago, attending public schools and nearly flunking out of college, she has seen the value of persevering in education.
“I am now a college president and I don’t know any other place my story could have been possible if not for this country and the immense opportunities that a higher education has presented to me,” says Pollard.
When she entered Iowa State University to pursue political science and economics, Pollard did not perform at her greatest potential.
“I was really struggling in a lot of ways. I didn’t know how to ask for help, and I didn’t know how to navigate the system very effectively,” she recalls.
Fortunately, Pollard was surrounded by individuals who guided her in the right direction. “[I had] a professor who had substantive conversations with me — someone who saw my work and said, ‘How about you pursue this idea’ or ‘Here’s an opportunity that I’d like you to take advantage of’ and [that helped me to] really hone a skill set that I didn’t even know that I possessed,” she says.
Pollard received her undergraduate degree in English, with a minor in religious studies in 1993. While pursuing a master’s degree at Iowa, she completed an assistantship in the Women’s Center conducting educational programming. It was then Pollard found her calling in student services.
“I loved that interaction with students. I loved going into the residence halls and doing programs. I loved working with community groups to bring awareness to certain issues,” she says.
After completing graduate school in 1995, Pollard entered her first position in higher education as an assistant professor of English at the College of Lake County, a community college in Grayslake, Illinois. During the course of 13 years, she climbed the ranks from tenured professor to faculty coordinator to dean and, finally, chief academic officer.
While Pollard never expected to remain in community colleges, she forged a love for their purpose and has led an impassioned career of ensuring that others recognize their benefit.
“A lot of people don’t know what we do. They may know that we deliver the first two years of an undergraduate experience, but they oftentimes don’t know about the comprehensive workforce development programs that we have,” she says. “They don’t know about the lifelong learning and community development programs we have; they don’t understand the rather extensive student support services that we have within our organization; they don’t know that we have honors programs; they don’t know that we provide scholarships and we have a robust student life and athletics.”
In 2005, Pollard received a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies in higher education from Loyola University Chicago. Three years later, she was appointed president at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, where Pollard increased enrollment by 15 percent, implemented a $230 million facilities modernization program and encouraged strategic community partnerships.
Pollard took on her latest journey in 2010 at Montgomery College, in Montgomery County, Maryland, comprised of nearly 60,000 students across three campuses.
A graduate of Leadership Montgomery, a leadership development program for Montgomery County, Pollard was named its Outstanding Leader for 2013. She has also been recognized by Washingtonian magazine, the Daily Record and the Washington Business Journal.
Sometimes, it’s hard for her to believe how far she’s come.
“Every once in a while I look at myself and say, ‘I’m just this little Black girl from the South Side of Chicago who some days is still trying to figure out how to get it together — who has these ideas and sometimes they’re kind of crazy,’ [but] at the same time, other people think I’m a good leader,” Pollard says.
Still, her accomplishments outweigh all doubt.
At Montgomery College, Pollard has led the development of a strategic plan focused on access, equity and workforce preparedness for students. She has maintained a rigorous environment for transfer education to four-year institutions, where nearly 1,500 students enrolled in the engineering department go on to attend universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Maryland, College Park.
She has also facilitated a partnership with the Montgomery County Public Schools and the Universities at Shady Grove to create Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES), a program that supports high school students transitioning to college.
While Pollard does not do it alone, she recognizes the direction of the college and its students are in her hands.
“I work with immensely talented people and they have the ability to really transform this county and this state into something that is unbelievable,” Pollard says, “but part of that requires a leader who has vision, who has the ability to bring people together and I’d like to think I have [those] skills.”