Mildred Ollée became the first woman president of Seattle Central in 2003, strengthening the college's programming and scholarship fund. Throughout her career, she was passionate about increasing the number of African Americans in higher education, focusing on outreach in the community.
Mildred Ollée marched with her family through the streets of Walla Walla. It was the 1960s and African Americans were marching around the country.
To be black in the southeastern Washington farming town at the time meant you were likely in the military or a resident of its infamous prison. Ollée’s family was an exception.
Ollée and her husband, Henry, settled in Walla Walla to raise their boys: Darrell and David. They would take them to civil-rights protests, even when they were as young as 4 and 8, respectively. Darrell said his mother was constantly teaching him and his brother how to navigate life during a socially charged time.
She had seen racism up close while growing up and going to school in Louisiana. Like when her husband couldn’t find a job as a pharmacist, even though he had the same credentials as white applicants.
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“You normally didn’t get a second chance so you were told to do it right the first time,” David said. “The reality was there was no opportunity where they were. She saw that racism right up close and personal.”
It was those experiences that helped shape Ollée and her views on education and led her to become the first female president of Seattle Central College, as well as a longtime advocate for students of color. Ollée died on Sept. 30 at 84 years old, but her legacy continues on campus, former colleagues said.
Since her death, donors have contributed enough money to a scholarship fund in her name for at least $2,500, which will go to an African-American student attending Seattle Central. The scholarship will be given annually to one student, said Jessica Norouzi, executive director of the Seattle Central College Foundation, where Ollée was a board member.
“One of the biggest barriers our students face, particularly students of color, is affordability,” Norouzi said. “This scholarship helps address that barrier. It’s in honor of her and her experiences and dedication to education.”
The tribute is fitting. Throughout her career in higher education, Ollée worked to make college more accessible for minorities, impacting the lives of thousands of students in Washington and Oregon.
Ollée was passionate about equal opportunity and increasing the percentage of African Americans in higher education, said Laurie Cohen, a former Seattle Central counselor and colleague.
When Ollée became president of Seattle Central in 2003, 10 percent of its students were African American, according to Seattle Colleges data. Now, about 13 percent are. The percentage of students of color has grown from 43 percent to 59 percent.
As she reviewed scholarship data, Ollée would specifically look at how many African- American males applied. She knew the data on economic opportunity and the low percentages of African Americans in higher education. Ollée didn’t want that at Seattle Central. If the number of African-American males applying for scholarships was low, she would try to figure out how and where people were getting applications, according to Cohen.
“She didn’t take anything at face value,” Cohen said. “It seemed like everywhere she went she was a trailblazer. Seattle Central has a very diverse student population, but she wanted to make sure that every single program she looked at was diverse. She believed in equal opportunity and that you don’t just get it, you have to make it and figure out how they can get those resources.”
During Ollée’s time at Seattle Central, she worked to raise the academic standard, introducing free tutoring for students, setting up a chapter of the National Honor Society and strengthening partnerships with universities to better prepare students for a four-year education.
“It was her passion for learning and her passion for all students regardless of income, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of social status, all students had equal opportunity to learn how to participate in our economy,” said Myrtle Mitchell, a former colleague at Seattle Central. “She brought us back to that central core that we were there to provide quality education and make sure all students had access to it.”
When she served as an acting assistant dean of students, Ollée spoke of applying pressure to a system that prevented people of color from succeeding.
“Yes, some few strides have been made, but basically the door of opportunity could remain locked forever if pressure is not applied,” she said in a Seattle Times story in 1977.
David said their mother was constantly reading and had an extensive collection of books about African-American leaders, from Harriet Tubman to Malcolm X.
“We went over everything,” David said. “She told us we should be very proud of this, and here are some stories about what people did. I had fights just like everyone else did, but my mom told us you don’t have to beat everyone up, just don’t back down. People called me derogatory names, you know like go back to Africa and (n-word). You got tough real quick.”
Ollée was Seattle Central’s vice president of student services from 1987 to 1995, and then served as executive dean and CEO of Portland Community College Cascade Campus in Oregon from 1995 to 2003. While she managed the PCC campus, enrollment doubled and she was able to secure a bond issue expanding the campus from three buildings to six.
Ollée’s other leadership roles include serving as interim executive director of the Northwest African American Museum and a member of the Federal Way School Board. She was also active in many other organizations.
She earned her doctorate in educational leadership from Seattle University in 1988. She also held a master’s degree in education from Walla Walla College and a bachelor’s degree in Education, English, and Social Science from Xavier University of Louisiana. Ollée was preceded in death by her husband.
Donations to the Mildred Ollée Scholarship Fund at the Seattle Central College Foundation can be made c/o Jessica Norouzi, 1701 Broadway, BE4180, Seattle, WA 98122, or visit the foundation donation page.