Freddy Coleman, '17, was elected as president of the class of 2017 during his freshman year. Coleman is the first African American student to serve as a class president at Lehigh. (Jessica Hicks/B&W Staff)

Paving a positive pathway: Freddy Coleman leaves mark as first African American class president

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At first, Freddy Coleman, ’17, didn’t think he would come to Lehigh.

He envisioned himself at a larger school further away from his home in Easton. He wanted to try something new and already felt as though Lehigh was familiar to him because it’s where his father earned his graduate degree.

Despite his initial expectations, Coleman did come to Lehigh — not only as a legacy because of his father but also as a legacy-creator himself. Coleman has left his mark as the first African American class president, and while his ambition and forward-thinking were unprecedented on campus, Coleman came to Lehigh with a long history of involvement and innovation.

For Coleman, giving back to the community and stepping out of his comfort zone is a way to pay it forward to his parents who immigrated from Ghana.

“They wanted the best life, they wanted to live the American dream,” Coleman said. “They wanted to make sure their children did not have to struggle as much as they did and they wanted to create something for themselves.”

Coleman said he experienced two lifestyles growing up as a Ghanaian-American.

“At school, I’ll eat a cheeseburger or pizza like everyone else,” Coleman said. “But back at home I’m more in tune with the culture, I’ll eat the traditional foods like jollof rice or fufu.”

Coleman said he didn’t even recognize his parents’ Ghanaian accents until he returned home for the first time over Pacing Break. The way his mother and father enunciated words and the expressions they used in conversation were ordinary to Coleman, but he became aware of the difference after being away from them for several months.

As he was growing up, Coleman watched his parents struggle to do things many families take for granted. The transition from renting an apartment to buying a house was a large feat, as was purchasing a car.

“Seeing that side of things, I really started to appreciate the struggle they had,” Coleman said.

Coleman then brought this acceptance, appreciation and awareness back to Lehigh and used his role as class president to open the eyes of others. He started campaigning over the summer before his freshman year, and once he arrived on campus Coleman went from dorm to dorm meeting different people and sharing his ideas.

Coleman saw his election as a mandate to do his best for his class and for the Lehigh community in general.

“That’s why I got involved in different types of things, from being in Student Senate to getting involved with the National Society for Black Engineers,” Coleman said. “Everything ricocheted into something else.”

During his freshman year, Coleman struggled to truly find himself because he was committed to so many activities and organizations. It was when he began his work at the Office of Admissions that Coleman felt he had found his niche.

For the last three years, Coleman has served as an intern for diversity recruitment and worked to find students who were not only diverse in race but also in geographic location and background. He has played a significant role in organizing Diversity Life weekend and the Diversity Achievers Program.

“Each year, we’ve been able to say we’ve brought in a more diverse class than ever before,” Coleman said. “To be a part of that, that’s been rewarding.”

Raising awareness for diversity and inclusion has remained a top priority for Coleman throughout his time at Lehigh. He saw this effort as part of his mandate, but he did not realize the key role he would be stepping into as he accepted the responsibility.

The night he was elected, Coleman received calls and congratulations from friends and family, but he was confused when university officials started contacting him, too. At that point in time, he did not know he was the first African American class president. When officials relayed this information to him, Coleman realized he would be leading the way for others in a brand new sense.

“At a school like ours — in the top 50 in the country, after almost 150 years — to know I was the first one, it was kind of shocking,” Coleman said.

During the first couple years of his term, Coleman said Lehigh experienced some growing pains.

“With the Umoja incident and (From Beneath the Rug), to be a black leader who just got elected … it was daunting,” Coleman said. “But I said, ‘Hey, this is what’s on your plate, work with it.’”

Coleman said being the first African American president was a privilege because he was able to be a voice for those who did not have the power to speak up. He used his position to represent Lehigh’s community of color and change school policies.

Most importantly, Coleman said he worked to allocate resources to benefit and strengthen those who have been marginalized on campus, from people of color to other unrepresented demographics.

Though Coleman served as the leader of many efforts and movements on campus, he said there were times he looked to others to guide him as well. He said he’s worked with some great teams of people while at Lehigh to accomplish his goals.

Henry Odi, ’98G, the vice provost for academic diversity, served as a mentor for Coleman. Odi said Coleman has grown tremendously because he is not afraid to call on others for support and he uses his experiences to mold his skills and benefit the community.

“He has paved a positive pathway for someone else, who may or may not look like (him), to serve in a similar role,” Odi said.

In conversation, Odi has told Coleman he is a mentor in several capacities, whether he is aware of it or not.

Soniet Berrios, ’19, served as an admissions intern alongside Coleman and always looked to him whenever she had questions or needed advice.

“Everybody knows (Coleman),” Berrios said. “Everyone knows he is a leader and he is someone they can go to for anything.”

Coleman said he wants to steer others in the direction of positive change, yet he also wants them to accomplish more than he did in his four years at Lehigh. Seeing the class years behind him, he’s confident this will happen.

After receiving his diploma in a cap and gown of brown and white, Coleman plans to travel for a year and complete research for the initiative “Digitizing Africa.” When he returns, Coleman will pursue a master’s degree in computer science and continue leading with the values he’s learned at Lehigh.

“I’ve learned how to make my problems and issues turn into opportunities and successes,” Coleman said. “And as advice for the next graduating classes, never forget the people who have helped you on your way to success and always value the experiences you’ve had with them.”

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1 Comment

  1. Not to take away from this young man’s accomplishments, but Boosy Odunlami was the 2006 Class President and he is African-American.

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