Over the last 30 years, the Collins family has collected college degrees the way some people collect postage stamps or rare coins.
The family of four has racked up nine degrees in total including two doctorates; seven of the degrees are from Western. Today, three members of the family also have careers at Western. While their long list of academic and professional accomplishments are undoubtedly impressive, the Collinses aren’t in it for the accolades; instead, they say they strive each day to serve as a success story for other families of color.
“We wanted to come to Bellingham and be the best example of an educated nuclear black family that we could be,” Frederick Collins Sr. said. “I think we’ve surpassed all expectations.”
Frederick Collins Sr. serves as Western’s assistant director for the Viking Union and provides leadership to the department of Outdoor Recreation, while his wife, Renee, is the associate dean of students. Their youngest, Frederick Jr., has worked as an admissions counselor since he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in Engineering in 2015. Their oldest, LaShawn Morgan, is a Western aluma working as a corporate recruiter in Seattle. Both Renee and Frederick Sr. received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Woodring College of Education, before going on to earn their doctorates in education through Seattle University.
Frederick Sr. and Renee were both raised in New York City, where they were taught from a young age to value higher education. As parents, they consciously made an effort to instill the same values in LaShawn and Frederick Jr.
“When we graduated high school, my sister and I knew that attending college was our only option,” Frederick Jr. said with a laugh. “And how could we not? We saw our parents and grandparents work so hard to achieve their educational goals. We couldn’t let them down.”
The Collinses have been living in Bellingham since 1989, after relocating from Atlanta. Frederick Sr. and Renee had both taken college courses in the past, but neither had received a degree.
“Finally, I said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m going to get a degree,’” Renee said. “Bellingham came highly recommended to us by my husband’s brother, who was living in the area. That and the excellent reputation of Western’s teaching school for Frederick Sr. made Bellingham a great choice.”
The transition from Atlanta to Bellingham was not an easy one. LaShawn recalls making the cheer team at her old school right before her parents told her they were moving.
“I was so upset,” LaShawn said. “Thirteen is a hard age to move. Then coming to Bellingham from Atlanta and seeing maybe five other black kids in my school, that was really difficult.”
Frederick Sr. remembers his first time walking into Western’s Office of Admissions, very shortly after the family’s big move. The first person to greet Frederick Sr. was current dean of students, Ted Pratt, who was working as an admissions counselor at the time.
“Even all these years later, I can remember how kind and welcoming Ted was to myself and my family,” Frederick Sr. said. “He has always had our back, helping us to better ourselves.”
While many faculty and staff members like Ted Pratt and Fairhaven College’s Larry Estrada welcomed the Collins family with open arms, Renee remembers the culture shock she felt stepping onto Western’s campus. At the time, there were only a handful of people of color at Western. While it would have been easy to feel discouraged, Renee took this as an opportunity to take the small community of people of color that existed at the time, and help it grow into something much larger. One example of her efforts was her role in the creation of the Northern Puget Sound Chapter of the NAACP, one of the country’s oldest civil rights organizations.
Both Renee and LaShawn played an integral part in the founding of the Ethnic Student Center in 1991. Today, the ESC has grown to encompass nearly two dozen student clubs. The ESC offers support to staff and faculty as well.
“I have always felt that faculty and staff need the ESC just as much as students, if not more,” Renee said. “It’s such a vital resource for anyone involved.”
Both LaShawn and Frederick Jr. were involved in the ESC throughout their years at Western. Frederick Jr. says he appreciates the intersectional nature of the ESC that allowed him to build relationships with other cultural groups on campus. The community he found within the center played an integral role in his success at Western, he says.
“One of the main reasons I was able to graduate was the sense of community I felt with the Ethnic Students Center,” Frederick Jr. said. “As a student of color, there were times when I needed people to vent to who I knew could empathize with me and relate to me.”
Though each member of the family has had a unique educational experience, all four Collinses agree on one ultimate key to their success: seeking out community with like-minded individuals.
“You can find community just about anywhere,” Frederick Sr. said. “Community can be something as simple as finding like-minded friends in your classes. Just find people who support you and have your best interests at heart. I’m certain that is what has kept us here all these years: finding our own ‘campus family.’”