Reneé Collins has been a university administrator, civil rights advocate and long-term college student. Beginning Monday, she begins deciding what’s next.
“I will see how life unfolds,” she says. “I do know I will be doing something to serve the community, to see if there are any holes I can fill. That’s just how I am.”
Collins, associate Dean of Students and director of Student Outreach Services, spent more than 30 years at Western, including time leading some of the university’s most important offices devoted to student support.
A reception in her honor will be Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, from 3-5 p.m. in the Solarium, Old Main 590.
Collins first came to Western in 1987 soon after her family had moved to Bellingham from Atlanta. Intrigued by the educational opportunities she saw at WWU, where her husband Frederick was working toward a degree, she turned down a job offer to work at the U.S.-Canada border and took a temporary position in the Psychology Department. She later worked in the Division of Business and Financial Affairs as well as the Equal Opportunity Office.
She went on to work in leadership roles in the Division of Enrollment and Student Services, including interim Dean of Students, and director of the Ethnic Student Center, Student Outreach Services, and LEADS. She’s also winding up a stint as interim director of Career Services and Academic Advising.
Meanwhile, Collins completed three academic degrees herself. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Western's Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies in 1997, followed by a master’s in adult education in 2000. She then went to work on her doctorate in educational leadership, which she completed at Seattle University in 2010.
Along the way, she also completed a prestigious two-year Community Builders Fellowship with Housing and Urban Development, which included time with Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Collecting academic degrees is something of a Collins family tradition. The family of four has earned a total of nine college degrees, including seven from WWU.
Collins says her family sustains her, both her husband and children, as well as the community she’s nurtured at Western and in Bellingham. Strong community support systems are crucial to the success of people of color, she says. “I’ve seen many people not be able to sustain it because they feel so isolated and they have no support,” she says.
Where Collins hasn’t found a sense of community, she has helped build one. At Western, she established the Minority Employee Council for staff and faculty to build relationships and support each other on a predominately white campus. In 1992, she was the founding president of the Northern Puget Sound Chapter of the NAACP. That same year, she was a driving force behind the city of Bellingham’s first Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative ceremony – before it was a city holiday.
Know your history so you understand who paved the way for you to be here. What will you do to continue that? What’s your part?
“When I came to Bellingham, I had no clue about civil rights,” Collins said. “I just wanted to do my part. That’s how it happens.”
In the years that followed, Collins became a community spokesperson on civil rights issues, speaking at social justice conferences and gatherings, and giving media interviews following racially motivated violence in the community, such as a cross burning that targeted Latino farm workers in Lynden. She took time off work at Western to witness the trial of a white man accused of a racially motivated assault in 1996.
She now wonders if she should have shared these stories with students more often, she says, but she didn’t want to give them something to be afraid of. She’d rather focus on healing and hope.
Collins, who received the Professional Staff Award for Excellence in 2014, has mentored hundreds of students in her career. Many have become lifelong friends; she was recently delighted to be asked to be a godmother. Her own mentors include former WWU faculty member, the late Violet Malone, and former WWU administrator Sauny Taylor.
She also gains inspiration from Ruby Bridges, who became a civil rights icon at age 6 when – accompanied by guards -- she walked into the front door of the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.
Collins says she thinks about Ruby, and others who faced tougher challenges and abuse in the struggle against racism, every time she walks down the front steps at Old Main.
“I think about Ruby Bridges and what she had to do, so I wouldn’t have to walk down the steps with armed guards,” Collins says. “People who know me know I say this all the time: We don’t stand on our own. Know your history so you understand who paved the way for you to be here. What will you do to continue that? What’s your part? Do your part.”