VP of Development and Alumni Relations Phelosha Collaros (SF00): A Heritage of Humanity
March 29, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
“I love taking apart things that aren’t working and putting them back together again,” says Phelosha Collaros (SF00).
Since becoming the St. John’s College Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations in 2016, she has done exactly that: revamping two college-wide departments and creating another from scratch, all while staff and budgets were being downsized.
“I think it takes a good ten years for most alumni to come to the revelation that the St. John’s approach becomes a part of your DNA,” she says. “There is no surface class at St. John’s, no surface understanding. The process is one of pulling things apart and putting them back together—pulling it apart to understand it, to look under it, to look inside of it. Sometimes you question yourself and you question everything you thought before, but in that process, you learn what resiliency is and you learn who you are.”
Growing up in New Mexico in a family of Colombian and Greek heritage, Collaros first learned about St. John’s from a high school teacher who was married to a tutor, and “it seemed like a hidden gem.”
As a freshman, she “started out as an enthusiastic student focused on what people call the life of the mind, right? It was an intellectual exercise.”
“But by senior year I had had four deaths in my family: one from malpractice, one from AIDS, the other two related to cancer and heart conditions. It was a different generation, so I didn’t recognize it as students do now [but] over time I descended into a clinical depression.”
By her final Kant seminars, the readings aroused her anger. “I’m all for ‘a place for everything and everything in its place,’ but his ordered world grated on me,” Collaros recalls. “I wanted to yell, ‘What do we do with all this mess that is life?’ Just because I can think more clearly doesn’t mean I feel any better.”
She credits other authors for throwing her a much-needed lifeline. For example, “there was Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky grappling with the mess, the lack of certainty, and with suffering. I heard that I didn’t need to figure it all out. I just needed to know I was in good company as I suffered, convalesced, felt my feelings, and embraced life, despite it all. When it comes to coping with loss, these are voices that are reaching out to us across time. It makes you feel less alone, makes you feel that resilience is possible.”
Collaros’s personal history instilled in her a very specific appreciation for her St. John’s education. Her maternal grandparents endured Colombia’s political conflict of the 1940s and 50s, during which more than 200,000 of the country’s citizens lost their lives.
“Being in a mixed marriage—a liberal and a conservative—it was difficult [for them] to find safety,” she says. “They lost everything more than once. So my abuelita would say, ‘Get an education, because it’s one thing no one can ever take from you.’”
“On my Greek immigrant side, St. John’s was a study of our ancestors.” Half-joking, she adds, “I learned [that] sayings of my papu were really Aristotle or carved on the Oracle of Delphi.”
She sees the Program as “a heritage of humanity”—one that should be made accessible for any student who seeks it. Because St. John’s challenges its students to attempt to understand the other and to disagree with respect, Collaros believes “that our method of education can make tragedies, like what befell Colombia, just a little less likely in the world.”
As it illuminated the multifaceted aspects of what it means to be human, Collaros’s liberal arts education also helped her cultivate three indispensable skills: courage, connectivity, and curiosity.
She describes these, respectively, as “the confidence that a developed mind can rise to any challenge; an openness to new ideas; and the ability to look beyond boundaries and across silos to find synergy and solutions.”
These abilities were essential in her previous role as foundation director for the American Society of Radiologic Technologists, in her hometown of Albuquerque, as well as her initial volunteer roles at the college.
“I feel like I got on a train without knowing where the final destination would be, and I’m still surprised by it,” she says, detailing her path from serving on an accreditation committee to the alumni relations task force to the board of the Alumni Association, where she ultimately served as president, before finally joining the staff as a vice president.
“I hope all alumni can access a sense of gratitude and privilege from their experience,” Collaros says. “And then do whatever they can to make sure St. John’s is available for future generations. Advocate, volunteer, give to the Freeing Minds campaign at your level of generosity. St. John’s is our heritage, and its future is up to us.”