200 Days in the Life of the College

Friday, March 11

She brings lessons back from the front lines

by Redwan Saleh ’13

“If you are on time, then you are late.”

These are the first words that incoming Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and College Scholar students hear during the first day of the summer program. The director of opportunity programs, Phyllis Breland ’80, begins their orientation by taking cell phones away from the students and informing them that they are here because Hamilton has seen the promise and potential in them “to be excellent.”

Guiding her students through their college careers, Breland still holds to “life lessons” she herself learned as a student on the Hill. As the first female class speaker, the first African American woman to be inducted into Pentagon, and a student who was part of the transition from Kirkland College to a coeducational Hamilton, she regularly worked with the Black and Latin Student Union and was a familiar figure — seldom a silent one — in both the dean of students’ and president’s offices. Her own mentor and former opportunity programs director, C. Christine Johnson, “Ms. J,” helped Breland improve her writing and encouraged her to express herself clearly and directly. “It was not simply politically correct to get along,” she recalls. “People were open about their feelings.... Everyone knew each other.”

Back then, she says, there was only one Africana studies class, where today there is a burgeoning department. Breland is pleased with the changes on the Hill since her own student days and her return to campus in 2001. Hamilton’s goal of achieving more diversity on campus is “nothing new” — it is inherent in Hamilton’s liberal arts tradition and Kirkland College’s distinctive legacy. The keys are accountability, responsibility and free expression — all of which Hamilton promotes. “We just need to continue that,” she says. “I think we still have more work to do.”