Alton Coston, III ’23 has been awarded the prestigious Truman Scholarship by the Harry S. Truman Foundation, the organization announced Thursday. The award provides funding for graduate studies, leadership training, career counseling and internship and fellowship opportunities within the federal government.
Coston joins an elite group of scholars who demonstrate outstanding leadership potential, a commitment to a career in government or the nonprofit sector and academic excellence, the foundation stated. He is the first scholar selected from William & Mary since Katherine Swartz was awarded the scholarship in 2008, according to the foundation’s website. The university’s first Truman Scholar was Clayton Clemens in 1978, who currently serves as the Chancellor Professor of Government at William & Mary.
“The award is deeply meaningful, but in all honesty, it’s just the derivative of something much larger for me,” said Coston, a public policy and Africana studies major. “I am passionate about the work that lies ahead. I’m not chasing accolades – I’m chasing my passion. When I think about the communities I’ve helped cultivate here at this institution, about making a real difference on a sizeable level in my community and our nation, that’s what gets me up in the morning and keeps me awake at night.”
Coston currently serves as the president of William & Mary’s African American Male Coalition and Undersecretary of Multicultural Affairs for the Student Assembly. He was recently awarded the university’s inaugural John Lewis Social Justice Award, which honors a student with the potential to carry forward the legacy of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis. University leaders, staff and faculty recognized Coston for his “passion and fire, emotional vulnerability, reflective self-questioning, interest in public service and strong partnerships in community.” Coston is also a Forsyth Family Scholar, Hulon L. Willis, Sr. Memorial Scholar and Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholar at William & Mary.
Established by Congress in 1975 as the living memorial to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, the Truman Scholarship was created to honor America’s 33rd president by supporting and inspiring the next generation of public service leaders.
“William & Mary has played a pivotal role in shaping our democracy since before this nation’s founding,” said W&M President Katherine A. Rowe. “We aim to graduate problem-solvers who lead in thoughtful, principled ways. When I first met Alton, in his freshman year, it was immediately clear to me that he will make a lasting positive impact in every community he joins.”
This year, 58 Truman Scholars were selected from 705 candidates nominated by 275 colleges and universities, the foundation stated in a release. The scholars were recommended by 17 independent selection panels based on the finalists’ academic success and leadership accomplishments, as well as their likelihood of becoming public service leaders.
“It is hard to overstate the significance of this recognition,” said W&M Provost Peggy Agouris. “The Truman Scholarship is the nation’s premier graduate fellowship for public service leadership. The application process is extremely rigorous and competitive. Alton has earned every bit of this honor by distinguishing himself as an intellectual and a community leader.”
An opportunity to pursue higher education was quite literally a prayer answered, Coston said. The Richmond native explained that he applied to William & Mary knowing he would not be able to afford college and hopeful his high school record would be strong enough to make the grade.
“My mother, father, sister and I all sat in the living room and held hands while my father led us in prayer,” Coston said. “A couple of weeks later, I got a letter in the mail saying that not only had I been accepted, but they offered to cover my tuition. When I enrolled, I felt the onus to give back and I made a promise to myself that no matter what happened I would simply make this university a better place.”
Upon arriving at William & Mary, Coston worked with the Center for Student Diversity and Office of Student Leadership Development to reestablish the university’s African American Male Coalition. Through that group, he helped launch monthly barber shop meetings, in which ethnic barbers are invited to campus to give haircuts to students of color.
“In the Black community, the barber shop is not merely a place you go to receive a haircut,” Coston said. “It’s a place for communal bonding, political strategizing and therapy.”
Carving out a dedicated space for young Black men to gather was something Coston said he personally needed and wanted to provide others on campus.
“I’ve struggled with issues concerning my identity, because I’m a Black student and I’m highly interested in constitutional law,” Coston said. “How, as a Black man, can I be galvanized by the country’s founding documents yet repelled by them all at once? How does one remain a man of principle in a system filled with political quackery and false promises? How does someone experience social mobility yet remain a man of the people, who, they believe, will never betray them? My presence at this university speaks volumes; it honestly wasn’t originally orchestrated for my arrival. Just walking on this campus, rocking my fro or twists and boldly pursuing opportunities, I am reminded that for most of this institution’s history, it would be inconceivable for me to be here and yet today, there is no place that could have better served my intellectual growth in public policy.”
Throughout a collegiate career that has endured a deadly pandemic, an economic crisis, renewed calls for racial justice and a global weakening of democratic institutions, Coston has shown himself to be driven and dedicated both in the classroom and the community, explained Lindsey Love, senior director of W&M’s Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs.
“Alton represents the best of this university,” Love said. “He is carving out his own path and making sure it is wide enough of a runway for others to soar.”
Adrienne Berard, Assistant Director for Research, News & Analytics