University alumna vies for crown of Miss Black USA

Former student Talitha Joy Kolbow’s platform will be “Unity for African Diaspora.”

Andy Mannix

When Talitha Joy Kolbow graduated from the University last May, beauty pageants were the last thing on her mind.

But just four months later, Kolbow was named Miss Black Minnesota 2008, and is now on her way to representing the Land of 10,000 Lakes in the Miss Black USA 2008 Scholarship Pageant.

“I think it’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve ever attempted to do,” Kolbow said.

Growing up in the predominately white community of Forest Lake, Kolbow said she had a difficult time finding where she fit in.

As a result, Kolbow was pretty shy and mostly kept to herself, she said.

Being adopted, even Kolbow’s parents were white, she said.

“Since I didn’t have many role models, I kind of thought, well, ‘OK, I don’t look like these other people I’m growing up with,’ ” she said. “So I felt kind of, not so pretty.”

It wasn’t until Kolbow was in eighth grade that she began learning about African history in school and received a sense of pride about her heritage, she said.

“That’s where I found that, OK, black is also beautiful,” she said.

For Kolbow, learning about African history also sparked a powerful attraction to Africa, which would eventually lead her to spend nine months in Ghana studying abroad, she said.

In her time at the University, Kolbow was a member of the African Student Association – a student group designed to educate the community in issues relating to African culture.

Diana Senyana, material science and engineering senior and African Student Association president, said Kolbow was a hard worker and always compassionate about African issues.

Senyana said she was “quite shocked” to find that Kolbow – who she described as being a very quiet woman – was a contestant in the Miss Black USA pageant, but she was very optimistic.

“If she puts into that half as much of what she put into the African Student Association, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that she will win,” Senyana said.

Kolbow graduated with a degree in African and African-American studies last spring, and before too long, found herself jobless and overwhelmed with what to do next.

Being deeply religious, Kolbow turned to God for the answers, and two weeks later was arbitrarily struck with the idea of applying for the Miss Black Minnesota pageant – something she would have never considered before, she said.

“From my experience, I know that sometimes that’s the way that God communicates with me,” Kolbow said.

Kolbow said she realized the pageant would be the jolt she needed to overcome her public shyness and take that next step.

She promptly applied to the pageant and was soon contacted by Sherisha Franklin, pageant administrator for recruitment, to do a phone interview, Kolbow said.

Later that same day, Franklin called her back to tell her she would be representing Minnesota in the 2008 national pageant – a shocking surprise to Kolbow, she said.

“She clearly led in the selection process when you looked at her background,” Franklin said. “And certainly when you speak with her, you’re even more impressed with the quality of young woman she is.”

The pageant

The Miss Black USA Pageant and Scholarship Foundation was established in 1986 as a way to provide scholarship opportunities and promote leadership among the black community, according to the pageant’s Web site.

Franklin said although Miss Black USA is technically a beauty pageant, she considers it more of a “scholarship pageant” because of the academic opportunity it offers.

The winner of the national competition, Franklin said, receives a full-ride scholarship.

She said the pageant also differs from a pageant like the Miss America Pageant because it is designed specifically for black women.

Franklin said the pageant has received some criticism for not being open to everyone, but the purpose is not to exclude.

“It’s not necessarily a pageant that intends to alienate women, but more so to really celebrate their culture and their identity,” Franklin said.

The pageant will take place next summer, and between now and then, Kolbow has a busy schedule ahead of her.

Celi Dean, University alumna and Miss Black USA in 2005 and 2006, has been working with Kolbow to help her prepare, she said.

Dean said from her experience, the pageant is a lot more than just looking good.

“She has to be well-rounded in every aspect,” Dean said. “They’re looking for someone that can reach out to the people,”

In addition to training for the pageant, Kolbow is also required to pay a $500 entry fee, sell $1,000 of advertising space for the pageant’s program souvenir book, work with selected charities and create a pageantry platform – for which she chose “Unity for Africa Diaspora,” she said.

For Kolbow, winning the pageant would be a life-changing experience, she said.

“I would be so happy to be able to represent the U.S. in promoting these issues,” Kolbow said.

If she wins, Kolbow said she will use the scholarship to attend graduate school, and eventually move to Africa to do community-development work.