Vassar student headed for Oxford, foreign service


For those with the blues about Baltimore youth, Kia J. Coleman comes as a tonic.

Just check out a bit of what the poised 20-year-old has accomplished since graduating from Western High School in 1993. To wit, Ms. Coleman has:

* Compiled a straight-A average at Vassar College.

* Been elected president of her freshman and sophomore college classes.

* Spent a summer living with a family in Shirotori, Japan.

* Gained admission to Oxford University in England for her junior year.

* Made the most difficult choice of her young life.

Ms. Coleman's signal achievement to date -- and the source of that tough choice -- is her recent selection for the U.S. State Department's highly competitive Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program. From 150 applicants nationwide -- all with outstanding grades -- she was one of 10 students chosen.

The fellowship provides Ms. Coleman a full scholarship for her last two years of undergraduate study and a two-year master's program in international affairs.

But it also exacts a high price: After the four years of study, fellows must serve 4 1/2 years as diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service, anywhere from Bolivia to Botswana and beyond. Those who don't complete the program must repay the stipend with interest.

Ms. Coleman debated this spring whether to make that long-term commitment.

"It's hard to imagine myself at 28 or 29," she said. Her thinking "changed from minute to minute. One minute it would seem great. The next minute -- well, maybe I can get into law school."

There were financial concerns. Vassar, a prestigious liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., costs more than $26,000 a year. Ms. Coleman has a partial scholarship, but the remaining costs are a drain on her parents, William A. and Carol J. Coleman, who are separated. Yet she didn't want to accept the fellowship strictly out of financial need and later regret it.

"See my hair?" asked Carol Coleman, fingering a patch of gray. "See my phone bill? One day she called me four times."

There were personal considerations, too. "You think about getting married and everything in your late 20s," Ms. Coleman said.

Her mother, who fields telephone inquiries for the Social Security Administration, noted that "for a black woman, it'll be a small pool" of potential spouses in the Foreign Service.

"It'll be minute," Ms. Coleman agreed with a laugh.

In the end, she decided the fellowship was right for her. She underwent orientation this month in Washington.

Ms. Coleman's difficult choice was the latest in what she calls a "chain reaction" of adventurous decisions.

Bypassing a full scholarship from hometown Morgan State University, Ms. Coleman chose Vassar instead. Once there, she enrolled in a tough political science major, took Japanese as a foreign language and ran for class president.

Never having been abroad, she opted last year to spend eight weeks in Japan with a family that spoke no English. This year she applied to Oxford.

"I'm not afraid of closing my eyes and saying, 'OK, I picked this. Here I go, I'll take what comes.' So far the choices I've made have worked for me," said Ms. Coleman, who grew up with her mother just over the city line in Woodlawn, her father in Randallstown and her grandmother in Northwest Baltimore.

She credits the adults in her life with devoting time to her and pushing her to excel. She says her autistic older brother, Kirk, inspired her to "pay close attention to detail, stop and appreciate things I have."

First choice was Spelman

Michael A. Franko, a Western guidance counselor now retired, pushed her to take the first big step -- going away to college. Ms. Coleman's first choice was Spelman College, a historically black school in Atlanta, but scholarship aid wasn't available.

Mr. Franko spotted her potential soon after Kia, then a shy, somewhat bookish adolescent, entered Western. That summer, he hired the 15-year-old to work in the guidance office.

Clearly, Ms. Coleman has since made the school and her family proud. But Mr. Franko says she is much more than a pretty resume, and that is why he picked her.

"There was a gentle loveliness about her, just the kind of kid you want to represent the office to the general public. She did it with aplomb, grace, style and intelligence," he said.

Ms. Coleman enlisted other mentors along the way. One is Brenda C. Brisbon, a Baltimore immigration attorney. She is a black Vassar graduate who spent a decade in the Foreign Service. She met Kia through a counselor in a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People youth program.

Ms. Brisbon had found that a Vassar degree "opens doors," and she saw Ms. Coleman as a talented young person who "needs to have the world opened" to her.

"It's been very rewarding to watch her grow. I know what it represents at Vassar to have all A's," Ms. Brisbon said. "She has this sparkling spirit, and I think the Foreign Service could use a little bit of that."

Yet success hasn't come automatically. "I'm not brilliant," Ms. Coleman said. "I'm a hard worker. That's what I'm good at. If I'm having a hard time with something, I'm good at sticking with it until I can understand it."

After attending predominantly black schools in Baltimore, she felt pressure to show she could compete at mostly white Vassar. She relished the chance to show that the "stereotypical images I see all the time in the media don't apply to the majority of young African-Americans."

When her first college paper was graded a B-minus, Ms. Coleman was upset. She had never received such a low grade. She worked harder. She began to get A's.

"At a school like Vassar I do feel that I have to prove myself, and that's something I accepted. I'm doing it for myself. It's like an added push," she said.

Vassar expanded her world. She came to know gay students, Latinos and Asians, whites who had never gone to school with blacks before. She found she was not alone in fearing that she wouldn't measure up.

By last summer she was ready to test herself further, in Japan. She absorbed a strange culture, struggling with the language, the customs and the chopsticks.

'I felt like a baby'

"I felt like a baby the whole time," she said. "I also felt closer to my nation. I identified myself more as an American than I ever had."

Early this year, Ms. Coleman visited Pimlico Middle School, which serves some tough, drug-troubled neighborhoods of Northwest Baltimore, to talk about Japan. She showed photos and handed around Japanese coins and shoes for students to touch.

"My message was that the world is so big, and you really don't realize it until you're there, and then you realize how small you are," she said. "There's so much beyond your classroom and your neighborhood to see."

Now it's on to Oxford for Kia Coleman. Then the world.

"Nothing about Kia surprises me," said Mr. Franko, her former guidance counselor. "She represents Western and Baltimore City beautifully, she represents Vassar beautifully, and she'll represent this nation just as well. When one deals with kids like this, it just gives you hope for the future."

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