by Jazmine Otey
Dr. Mary Dana Hinton said growing up in the rural South in an impoverished Black family during the mid-1970s and ’80s wasn’t easy. She remembers when she went to her high school guidance counselor to discuss her college options. Her counselor paused briefly, looked her directly in the eyes and then told her that as a Black woman in America, college wasn’t an option for her.
“There was a part of me that to some degree believed what she said,” Hinton said. “But at the same time, telling me I can’t do something is almost like striking a match because then I have to try and prove you wrong.”
The following day, her mother and a family she worked for sat Hinton down and told her that she needed to transfer to a new school where people believed in her regardless of the color of her skin. The family, she refers to as “the Cooper family,” would pay for her to go to Saint Mary’s School if she worked hard. Hinton was terrified, but she didn’t hesitate. Looking back, she describes this moment as her “lucky break.”
Nearly 35 years later, Hinton now serves as the 13th president at Hollins University and has a myriad of accomplishments under her belt. She attributes much of her success to both the Cooper family’s support that day and her mother’s tenacity to turn adversity into opportunity. Hinton hopes to help Hollins students do the same.
“Every young person deserves an opportunity to learn in an environment where people believe they can be successful,” Hinton said. “My calling is to create structures that enable educational equity and help young people be successful without having to hope for a lucky break.”
Hinton’s fervor for serving others was instilled in her by her mother. During her upbringing in Kittrell, North Carolina, her mother emphasized that the key out of poverty was an education. She also told her that once she obtained it, it was her responsibility to support others along the way.
Hinton took heed to her mother’s advice. She now holds a Ph.D in religion and religious education from Fordham University, a Master of Arts degree in clinical child psychology from the University of Kansas and a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Williams College. She also served as president of the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota for six years.
In 2020, she started her journey at Hollins and said it was the “perfect fit” due to its steadfast commitment to serve women, its plethora of liberal arts programs and it’s success with social mobility. According to the U.S. News and World Report, Hollins is ranked as No.21 in top performers on social mobility.
Hinton looks forward to Hollins’ continued efforts toward inclusion, equity and diversity, and states she’s actively “listening to the hearts” of faculty, staff and students at Hollins. In July, she held 11 meetings and talked with over 150 individuals to discuss what needs to be done. From this, she was able to help produce two reports that honor the work done before her and outline the work Hollins has ahead of them.
“At this moment in our country, we have to make a commitment to equity and justice, not as words or a statement but in our activities and in our will,” Hinton said.
This week, Hollins hosted a virtual meeting with legal scholar Michelle Alexander, the bestselling author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” On October 23, Hollins will hold their first day-long Equity and Justice Day. It will be a day of engagement, learning and reflection and feature both local and national speakers
Hinton is proud to say that Hollins is becoming a college for young women who, like she was, are low-income first generation students in search of a world of opportunity. She is excited for what is to come during her presidency.
“My success is not despite being marginalized. I would argue that my success is because of those things,” Hinton said. “What gets me up in the morning is that I want a different opportunity for other kids in Kittrell and in Roanoke.”