When Josie Collier ’97, P’14 learned that she would be taking over as president of Hamilton’s Alumni Association starting next month, she was hit with a mix of emotions from excitement to anxiety. After all, her work as a longtime volunteer fostering connections among previously disengaged alumni had largely been done quietly behind the scenes. Now everyone would be looking to her to develop partnerships on a larger level.
That’s when Collier did what she often does in times of personal uncertainty. She reached out to her support network. This time she called her mentor, “Ms. J,” Christine Johnson, former director of Hamilton’s Higher Education Opportunity (HEOP)/Scholars Program.
“At that moment, I felt like things had come full circle,” Collier says. “[Ms. J] told me she was proud of me. I’m not just a HEOP graduate but a Hamilton graduate, and I’m ready for this. I deserve this.”
The fact that she’s the first person of color to serve as president of Hamilton’s Alumni Association is a point of pride for Collier; however, her goals for her term are to continue building a culture of inclusion for all alumni. “I want people to understand what the Alumni Association does and that they are already a part of it,” she says. “And then I want them to see how Hamilton can be a different Hamilton if we all participate.”
For Collier that participation began even before she graduated. She was involved in and led several student organizations while a student at Hamilton. She then earned her master’s in counseling psychology just 18 months after crossing the stage to receive her Hamilton diploma. In the audience was her daughter, Nanyamka Fleming, then 5 years old and now also a Hamilton graduate, Class of 2014.
After spending the next 10 years as a mental health clinician, Collier found herself shifting career interests almost by accident. At the time, her employer, the Institute for Urban Family Health, was transitioning to a new electronic medical records system. She discovered a knack not only for understanding the technology, but also for explaining it to coworkers and showing them how it could make their jobs easier.
After some time, Collier became a health care IT consultant who now travels the country to assist clients with their systems. “But I still manage to use my mental health training when dealing with people,” she quips. “I find myself giving therapy in some form almost every day.”
What Collier describes as “therapy” can better be described as her natural ability to connect with people. As a student, she worked as a senior intern in the Admission Office during the time the College launched its multicultural acceptance student overnight program. Continuing her involvement as an alumna just seemed like the natural thing to do.
It wasn’t long before she teamed with fellow HEOP graduate and mentor, Torrence Moore ’92, to get involved with the Multicultural Alumni Relations Committee (MARC), eventually becoming the chair. That led to service on the executive council and then as chair of the Alumni Association’s Equity & Inclusion Committee, where she helped spearhead a change to the constitution’s bylaws that brought Spectrum, Hamilton’s affinity group for the LGBTQ+ community, and Women in Leadership under that umbrella.
Collier makes it a point to also meet with students when she returns to campus, especially those in Opportunity Programs. She was awarded the Through the Doors of Opportunity Award in 2017 for her years of mentoring students when she visited campus.
“I remember that first moment of culture shock, of feeling different, yet like I belonged there, too,” she says when thinking back to arriving on the Hill as a HEOP student herself. “I remember being in their shoes, trying to prove that you belong. It’s important to reach out and mentor. I can’t begin to describe the feeling, to see some little part of themselves in me and vice versa. It’s those moments where you see you’ve made difference even if a small one.”
For the past two years, Collier has served as vice chair of the Alumni Association — normally a role that serves as backup for the chair, representing the association in different regions or on campus. Instead, she embarked on a relationship-building campaign she dubbed Let’s Be Friends.
Because she traveled to different areas of the country almost weekly as part of her job, Collier began contacting alumni, some she knew from her time on the Hill, others whom she had never met; Hamiltonians from all eras, men and women of different ethnicities and backgrounds. She was clear, this was not a fundraising call — just an invitation to have coffee or grab some lunch.
“What I found was that, for many, they didn’t realize how much the school had changed,” Collier says. “I’ve been back often ever since I graduated, so I’ve seen the gradual changes. I knew every single person of color [when I was a student]; I don’t think my daughter could say that.”
She shared with alumni the facts and figures about enrollment statistics regarding the diverse makeup of the student body, described the activities of the Days-Massolo Center, and introduced them to other programs such as SEAS, the Student Emergency Aid Society, that provides funds for students with financial barriers who have unmet medical expenses or who need a suit for a job interview.
Her conversations motivated some alumni to attend College events and even inspired others to join MARC. “It’s time to start healing. Once they connect, people want to give back,” she says.
In her new role as president of the Alumni Association, Collier will have a more prominent role representing Hamilton and Kirkland graduates, but she plans to maintain and even expand on that grassroots effort of establishing relationships one at a time.
“There are alumni who are alienated from the College, who haven’t been back to campus in a long time. They no longer have opportunities to make those emotional connections with [Hamilton] folks like they did as students,” she says. “I want to keep finding ways to repair some of those friendships.”