UA Little Rock graduate gets new lease on life after major heart problems

Photo of Clarissa Coleman by Ben Krain.

On Valentine’s Day, 2013, Clarissa Coleman’s life would be forever changed. 

While attending choir rehearsal at Second Baptist Church, she started to feel hot and dizzy. After telling her friends she was headed to the bathroom to splash water on her face, she collapsed in the middle of heart failure and was rushed to the hospital fighting for her life.

“God worked a miracle, and I didn’t have to have open heart surgery,” she said. “My doctor told me, ‘Name three things you want to do because you are going to live.’ I said, ‘lose weight, finishing writing my book, and I want to go back to college.’”

Coleman says that she is thankful to God for giving her another opportunity to live and spread joy. And so Coleman got to work on her list, getting healthy, writing, and making plans to return to college decades after she started.

Coleman will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in applied communication May 12 in the Jack Stephens Center – 34 years after the first time she set foot in a classroom at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Coleman grew up as one of 11 children, the daughter of a prominent pastor who wanted a good education for his children.

“My father always wanted us to go to school,” she said.

Two years later in 1984, Coleman got the chance to pursue higher education when Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, her employer since 1973, offered to pay for employees to attend college classes. She took classes part time at UA Little Rock until 1986, when both her son and husband got sick. She later took classes at Philander Smith College from 1999 to 2002 when she worked in the college’s Office of Admissions.

In 2014, Coleman started at UA Little Rock for the second time and explored business and criminal justice as majors before landing in the Department of Applied Communication, where Chair April Chatham-Carpenter called Coleman a “keeper.”

“Clarissa Coleman is one of the most amazing people I have known,” Chatham-Carpenter said. “As a senior citizen who had her dreams of getting her bachelor’s degree delayed by life circumstances, such as having a family and starting her own business, her resilience and fortitude to see her degree through to the end in these past three years has been amazing. Clarissa is an inspiration to all who meet her, and I often call her into my office to speak words of encouragement to other students who are struggling with finding their own ways through to achieve their dreams.”

At UA Little Rock, Coleman made the Dean’s List, Chancellor’s List, and became a member of Alpha Sigma Lambda National Honor Society.

The focus of much of Coleman’s recent life has been about bringing joy to others. Her motto is, “Blessed people are doing things, going place, helping one another!” She even named her company, Happy People Productions, which promotes her books, plays, and other original works.

Her dedication to spreading happiness to others stems from her decision to turn a painful past into her motivation for doing the right thing. Coleman admonished people to spread joy and live.

Coleman remains a woman of many hidden talents. She has worked as a radio announcer and television host and is an active member of multiple choirs. She is the author of two books, “Good About Me” and “Inspiration in His Image,” and the owner of Clarissa’s Elegant Fashions and Gifts Boutique. She and her late husband Joe have two sons and seven grandchildren.

After graduation, Coleman will work as an underwriter at KUAR radio station and is in the middle of writing a third book. She also is considering going to graduate school so she can become a school counselor.  

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