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Ryan Johnson, Published October 25 2012

Pollard: Destined to serve as LGBTQ trailblazer on college campuses

FARGO – DeRionne Pollard said she always had a sense of “destiny” that she would lead a life of service, a feeling she said was instilled in her by her father growing up on the south side of Chicago after her mother died when she was 4.

As a teenager, she thought that meant serving in the Marines or mission work in Africa – goals her father put on hold, telling her to go to college for a year before she made up her mind.

But Pollard never left higher education, and said she has since realized her destiny was to act as a trailblazer. In 2008, she became the country’s first openly lesbian African-American college president.

During a presentation on the North Dakota State University campus Thursday, she said being labeled “the first” to break this boundary is almost inevitable.

“I’ve stopped fighting it because I recognize that’s where we are,” she said. “I think about the Little Rock Nine; I think about people who were the first in breaking barriers and what that meant for the community.”

Pollard admitted she sometimes tires of that label since becoming the president of Las Positas College in Livermore, Calif., in 2008. In 2010, she assumed the top administrative role at Montgomery College, a three-campus community college system with 60,000 students in Montgomery County, Md.

But “somebody has to be the first,” she said, and it’s a role she’s grown used to – even if she looks forward to the day when she can be known as a college administrator, a devoted partner of more than 20 years to Robyn Jones and a mother of their adopted son, Myles.

“It speaks to my own story about being relevant; it speaks to my own story of having a life of service, and this is what my service is right now is to figure out how to do this,” she said.

Pollard said her journey began when she was 18 and enrolled at Iowa State University in Ames. She was close to Jones, her roommate, and realized they were more than friends.

She said she had to deal with conflicted feelings about this relationship after growing up strongly connected to the church, and she considered dropping out of school to get away from Jones.

The encouragement of friends, and a desire to face this challenge rather than run away from it, kept her on track to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and stay with Jones.

She was hired as an English faculty member at College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill., and had to make another big decision when a new co-worker said she didn’t need to hide her obvious love for her partner anymore.

“Could I have said to her, ‘Oh, she’s just my roommate?’ I probably could have,” she said. “But I think back to my father, who said to me, ‘DeRionne, you are destined for something more, your life has to be of substance and worth.’”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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