When Orinthia Montague started as an undergraduate at Truman State University in Missouri years ago, she would not have completed college had it not been for the support she got from faculty.
That experience shaped the newest president of Tompkins Cortland Community College — who she is, her career, her passion to help students succeed.
Montague came from Minnesota, where she was chief diversity officer at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, to take over from retiring President Carl Haynes.
Her vision: to increase enrollment and make the college a place where more people choose to enroll after high school. The tools: increased marketing and making students feel welcome.
She started by helping students move in on Sunday, directing them where they needed to go and answering questions. She has been meeting with students, providing an ear to those who are struggling and setting an example of success just by being the first woman of color to lead the college’s administration.
In an introductory meeting with students Monday, she shared her own journey as a first-generation college graduate, telling students how for a few weeks she was an accounting major before realizing that was not at all something she was interested in and switching to communications.
Accounting was what her parents expected of her because she said there was an emphasis on people of color entering the science and mathematics fields.
“As a first generation, you don’t know what you don’t know until you get there,” she said.
She recalls how the director of multicultural services, a one-person office that supported about 150 students of color on the predominately white campus, offered her much-needed guidance, as did her faculty adviser, and with their encouragement she realized she could succeed.
She went to summer school, cut down her partying and brought her GPA up from a 1.8 to better than 3.0. The studies got more engaging as she began focusing on her area of interest.
She plans to bring to campus a conversation about diversity.
“One of the first things I want to work on doing is collaborating discussion groups, so people recognize where they are with a diversity lens,” she said. “It’s not just racial, it’s socioeconomic, it’s gender identification, disability — it’s everything you bring with you to the table.”
She also plans to start two gender-focused groups on campus: man talk Mondays, and women talk Wednesdays. The groups will be on campus and feature speakers on topics relevant to the genders.
Montague also will visit residence halls regularly, overseeing one wing of one hall in particular, so she can get to know the students. She wants students to feel they can come to her and talk with her if they have a challenge.
She foresees a college five or 10 years from now that has full residence halls and a yearlong international program, enhancing the college’s ability to prepare students to enter a global world.
Most of all, she wants to be an example of success. She recalled a recent meeting with a student who had once been homeless, who said that seeing a woman of color and a first-generation college graduate as the college’s top administrator was inspiring.
Montague wants to show students that no matter the challenges they have to overcome, “they can be anything they want to be.”