Walk into DeRionne Pollard’s office at Montgomery College and you immediately know who she is and what she cares about. Gospel music is playing, a reflection of her childhood church on the South Side of Chicago. Family photos are prominently displayed: her father, who raised her after her mother’s death; her partner, Robyn Jones, and their adopted son, Myles, now 7.
Pollard, who has been president of the college since 2010, is a traditional church-going, hymn-singing, family-loving person. It’s just that her family looks a bit different from the Norman Rockwell version.
She met Robyn more than 25 years ago, on their first day of freshman year at Iowa State University. They sat next to each other for a math placement test, “and from that moment we became best friends,” Pollard recalls.
Friendship eventually turned to romance. They were married in California several years ago, while Pollard was serving as president of Las Positas College in the San Francisco suburbs. Today, Jones is the “primary caregiver” for Myles. “She’s the type of parent and mother that I wish I had,” Pollard says.
Now 43, Pollard had many “sister-mothers” who stepped in to help after her own mother died when she was just 4. There was the aunt who cared for her during the week. Counselors at the same high school that had produced Michelle Obama a few years earlier. And the women of her church, Providence Missionary Baptist, who “would all say they saw something special in me.”
“Our whole lives revolved around our church,” says Pollard, including choir practice, prayer sessions, usher board meetings. When she finished eighth grade, the church gave her a $50 bond. When she finished high school, there was a modest college scholarship.
Those awards meant more than money, however. They conveyed a set of values that shapes her to this day. “That idea of service was ingrained,” she says, “that idea that we care about you, we’re invested in you as a community.”
School was as important as church, and community colleges, she notes, “are in my DNA.”
One of Pollard’s earliest memories is playing the cymbals at a day care center while her mother took courses at Kennedy-King College. After her dad lost his job with the railroad, he went back to Malcolm X College to learn radio and TV production. And her aunt took Pollard and her sister with her to evening classes at Prairie State, where she was qualifying to open a day care center.
“There was a bench right outside that classroom door and we would sit there for a couple of hours, doing our homework,” Pollard recalls. “We kept thinking: This is cool, we’re going to college. So maybe it’s providence that I would be a college president. I never left college.”
Yet she almost did. Several times. Adjusting to life in Ames, Iowa, wasn’t easy for “a little brown child” from Chicago. The stockings and makeup in the local stores were the wrong color. The hair products didn’t work. She became a “social butterfly,” partying with other black students, neglecting her courses and almost flunking out.
Then a “sister-mother” interceded, a black attorney at the university who employed Pollard as a nanny. Don’t quit, she told the troubled young woman. Get a tutor. Come to my house and study. “She intervened in my life,” Pollard says. “She stood in the gap and wouldn’t let me do that.”
Successes followed. Dean’s list. Graduate degrees. Teaching at the College of Lake County, north of Chicago. Running Las Positas. Then another “sister-mother” urged her to apply for the post at Montgomery College.
When Pollard asked Jones if she would be willing to move East, the response was quick and definitive: “No. It’s too cold.”
Jones got over it, however, and Pollard became the first African-American woman to hold the job. The couple moved to Clarksburg, a community that reflects the growing diversity of a county where non-Hispanic whites are now in the minority.
The day Pollard and I talked in her Rockville office she had just come from Myles’ classroom.
“It looks like a little U.N.,” she tells me. “You can go from the palest little white girl to the darkest Indian or African in the same classroom. Those 25 or 26 little people are really the face and future of Montgomery County.”
The school is still learning about same-sex parents, however. When forms ask for a father and mother, “I very deliberately scratch that out and write ‘parent one’ and ‘parent two,’ ” Pollard says.
When the PTA was giving out gift certificates to Chick-fil-A—a restaurant chain whose owner has denounced gay marriage—Pollard protested. She feels a responsibility “to help people be aware that there are different types of families.”
Her job at Montgomery College is all about understanding and appreciating differences. The student body of almost 60,000 (including part-timers) represents more than 160 different countries. Fewer than 30 percent are white. Thousands are undocumented immigrants. Many are poor.
But all the threads of DeRionne Pollard’s life have prepared her for this role. The daughter whose father lost his job and fed his family on government-issued cheese knows about financial struggles. The freshman who couldn’t find stockings to match her skin color knows about adjusting to strange environments. The niece who did her homework on a bench at Prairie State knows the value of education.
“Community college is the place where the American dream becomes real,” Pollard says. “One person in a family getting a college education can break the cycle of poverty. Just one person.”
The lessons she learned at Providence Baptist are never far from her mind. She is a sister-mother herself now. She once considered a career in the ministry and describes her mission at Montgomery College in pastoral terms.
“We’re this little church in the community, trying to help people live their best life,” she says. “You come to me tired, hungry, broke, poor—and our job is to meet you where you are and get you to where you want to go.”
To make her point she breaks into a lilting soprano, singing a verse from “I Need You to Survive,” a hymn from her old church, her old life.
I pray for you, You pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
I won’t harm you with words
from my mouth.
I love you, I need you to survive.
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts @gwu.edu.
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