Breaking the Mold

Kimberlee Coombes CE/DS ’16

Breaking the Mold

Photo by Richard Howard

Midway through her presentation “Consuming Hello Kitty: Saccharide Cuteness in Japanese Society” at the 20th Ruhlman Conference in April, Kimberlee Coombes CE/DS ’16 realized her notes were out of order. She paused for a moment, shuffled a few papers, and then set them aside, relying on her memory and months of research.

That moment epitomized the focus and determination that led her to Wellesley, eight years after she dropped out of high school as a junior.

For Coombes, who grew up in the blue-collar town of Londonderry, N.H., the decision to leave school was based on simple economics. “My family needed financial support, and I was offered a job doing logistics and operations work at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center,” she says. “The salary was high enough that at first I didn’t think about continuing my education. Most people in Londonderry don’t go on to college.”

Five years later, she began to want more. She earned her GED, while continuing to work full-time, and then enrolled in community college, with the intent to study nursing. After several science courses, however, she realized she was choosing the field based on the likelihood of job offers, rather than genuine interest. She switched to a liberal-arts major and learned about Wellesley’s Davis Degree Program from her academic counselor.

Originally called the Continuing Education Program, it was launched in 1971 to meet the needs of women seeking liberal-arts degrees at nontraditional times in their lives. It was renamed on its 20th anniversary after Elisabeth Kaiser Davis ’32, in honor of her family’s many generous gifts to the College. Davis Scholars, who are usually at least 24 years old, are both full- and part-time students and live on and off campus.

Coombes fell in love with the College and the program after visiting campus in 2011. “The event featured a panel of Davis Scholars, and I was impressed by their intelligence. I could picture myself in their shoes,” says Coombes, who graduated with honors in her major.

‘Being a first-gen or a high-school dropout does not correlate with one’s intelligence. It just indicates that some students are meant to break molds.’

During her first three years at Wellesley, Coombes, a Japanese language and culture major, worked 40 hours a week at Wal-Mart and commuted to campus, an hour each way, five days a week. That schedule was bearable, she says, because she enjoyed what she was learning about Japanese history and culture—a subject she became interested in as a young girl.

She also appreciated the support and encouragement of faculty who wanted her to succeed. “I often told my professors that I didn’t know what to do next because I had no one in my extended family to talk to about college. They offered me life advice and guidance (thank you, Professor Robert Goree and Professor Eve Zimmerman!) and always seemed excited for me, which alleviated my fears of never finding work and never becoming the person I want to be.”

In 2015, Coombes received a Pamela Koehler Daniels ’59 Fellowship from Wellesley—the second Davis Scholar to do so—which enabled her to quit her job and conduct fieldwork in Harajuku, a district in Tokyo, for her senior thesis and Ruhlman presentation. “Cute culture” features characters and images that look childlike, innocent, and vulnerable, in opposition to the harsh, strict world of adulthood. “Cute culture gives Japanese women a voice by offering them a means of personal expression,” she says. “By owning and wearing various cute objects, girls can express themselves in a form of a quiet disapproval.”

Coombes, who hopes to work or attend graduate school in Japan, is now studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. “If you want something, you can make it happen,” she says. “You might fall and trip along the way, but if you keep picking yourself up, you will succeed! Being a first-gen or a high-school dropout does not correlate with one’s intelligence. It just indicates that some students are meant to break molds.”

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