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Alumni Profile: Zandra I. Flemister ’73

Zandra I. Flemister on the Connecticut River, 1997. She smiles on a boat, wearing a white shirt with black stripes.

[Zandra I. Flemister on the Connecticut River, 1997]

“There must be a coalescence of might and humanitarianism into a strong and lasting peace. America, with its democratic ideals, resources, and demonstrated compassion will no doubt lead the way. I feel a compulsion to lend my talents, skills, and energies to the achievement of that goal.” 

– Zandra I. Flemister ’73

In 1974, Zandra I. Flemister was sworn in as a Secret Service Special Agent. She was the first Black woman selected for the role. Though first unaware of the milestone, Zandra understood the significance of her joining the Secret Service. A dedicated public servant, with a passion for foreign affairs, she is remembered for being a pioneer and role model first in law enforcement, then as a Foreign Service Officer. 

Early Life

Zandra was born abroad in Frankfurt, Germany on November 21st, 1951. The only child of an Army family, she soon moved to France and took her first steps into international education. She was taught to immerse herself into different cultures by learning the native language and customs of countries. At the age of five, her parents separated, and Zandra moved with her mother to Connecticut. There, she spent the rest of her childhood. 

Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, Zandra began to experience racial discrimination that would surmount throughout her professional career. Despite this, she became an active community member at her high school, active in political and international clubs. Since her mother, Pearl, was an active member of the Civil Rights movement, she attended several anti-segregation protests, including the 1963 March on Washington. Zandra noted that the racial strife she faced partially taught her “the rare ability to integrate diplomacy and aggressiveness into a workable whole.”

Graduating in 1973, Zandra earned a Political Science degree from Northeastern University as a work-study student. She was accepted into an early iteration of the school’s Black Studies Summer Institute, which she described as “an extremely challenging and, as a microcosm of undergraduate school…a tremendous preparatory program.” Being part of the university’s Black student network was greatly important to her, and she eventually became vice-president of a “400 student internal organization” for Black activism. 

Zandra’s interest in international affairs propelled her to enroll in the student exchange study system. A proponent of Northeastern’s signature experiential education, she believed that it was “the student exchange program and the resumed travel that was the most exciting, and perhaps the most educational aspect” of her undergraduate years. She traveled to Russia, then the Soviet Union, and Mexico, connecting with students of different nationalities and exposing herself to unfamiliar environments. 

Joining the Secret Service (1974-1978)

Zandra began her journey toward the Secret Service at a Hartford job fair, where a chance encounter with a recruiter led her to government service. When the recruiter told her she was overqualified for the Uniformed Secret Service, he encouraged her to apply to be a Special Agent. Undergoing a series of rigorous testing and security clearance, she was sworn in in 1974 and assigned to the Washington Field Office. 

During these four years, Zandra made the most of her time with the Secret Service. She attended special training, developed casework for criminal matters such as forgery and counterfeiting, and protected several prominent political figures. In 1976, Zandra received a special commendation for her protection of the wife of  Secretary of the Treasury William Simon from a possible kidnapping during her trip to South America.  

As the first Black woman hired to the position, Zandra knew she was setting a precedent.  There were few Black men and only one other Black woman during her time in the Secret Service. As such, Zandra was incredibly careful in her self-presentation, fighting the cards stacked against her. Despite the intense sexism and racial discrimination she faced at the hands of her colleagues she preserved to set an example. Today, she is hailed by Black women such as Renee Triplett, who years later became the first Black woman to enter senior ranks of the Secret Service, as their trailblazer. 

Zandra decided to pursue a career in the State Department which she felt better fit her talents and afforded her more opportunities for personal and professional growth.  She left the Secret Service in 1978.  While Zandra remained “proud of [her] Secret Service status,” she knew that her “real interests, and more importantly [her] heart, [was] in foreign affairs.” 

Career in the Foreign Service – State Department (1978-2011)

Zandra was sworn into the Foreign Service in June 1978, meeting her future husband John Collinge, whom she married in 1981.  She went on to serve for thirty-three years. Throughout her career, she was recognized for her maturity, determination, and strong interpersonal skills. She earned postings all around the world including Argentina, England, Spain, Pakistan, and South Korea as well as traveling widely when serving in the Office of the Inspector General. 

Zandra’s passion for public service and travel were well suited to a successful career in the State Department. When she first joined, Zandra knew the pay cut was well worth the transition, sensing that this path would prove more fulfilling. What followed was decades of adventure-packed work. Zandra managed an anti-fraud unit in London, discovered and broke up a counterfeit visa ring in Seoul, earned a Masters at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and more.  

One of her proudest achievements was becoming a Consul General in 2005. Sent to Islamabad, Pakistan, Flemister helped human rights activists and sexual abuse survivors speak out, and dealt with the aftermath of a destructive earthquake and the murder of a colleague serving in Karachi.  Due to her extensive accomplishments, she was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 2006. However, her climb into the upper ranks was disrupted by a worsening Alzheimer’s disease condition. In 2011, after decades of dedicated service, Zandra retired. She passed away in February 2023.  

Life and Legacy

Lovingly described as a “culture vulture” by her husband, Zandra held an intense love for the arts, especially theater. Outside career postings, Zandra and John traveled the world as often as they could. The couple made the most of their time in each country they lived in and visited, exploring museums, discovering hidden gems, and appreciating their surroundings during long walks. Most of all, John fondly remembers her dry sense of humor and her deep love of the ocean. 

While working full-time and advancing in her profession, Zandra also managed family responsibilities and cared for her autistic son, Samuel. She was a loving, determined mother who balanced both sides of her life exceptionally well, helping Sam attain a life of self-worth and independence.

Loved by her friends, family, and colleagues, Zandra left behind an important legacy as a leading force in international affairs. Her role as the first Black female Secret Service Special Agent inspired many more to pursue the field. When many faced the same discrimination as her, Zandra stepped in. For example, in 2001, she submitted an affidavit for a racial-bias lawsuit, in support of her fellow agents of color. She is now warmly regarded as “a trailblazer who dedicated her life to service and inspired a future generation of agents,” said Kimberly Cheatle, Director of the Secret Service.

The Launch of the Endowed Zandra I. Flemister ‘73 Trailblazer Fund (10/24/2023)

In Flemister’s memory, Northeastern University established the Zandra Flemister ‘73 Trailblazer Fund, honoring her legacy by supporting new generations studying in the field of international relations. The fund supports undergraduate students from underserved populations with financial need, including first-generation college students. It provides financial assistance for tuition and global experiential learning opportunities and launches the Zandra I. Flemister ‘73 Fellowship Program. Nominated Flemister Fellows will benefit from exclusive mentorship from faculty and experiential learning through various initiatives and activities with The Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern. 

[John Collinge speaking at the inaugural luncheon.]

In October 2023, a luncheon on Northeastern’s Boston campus celebrated the announcement of the inaugural Flemister Fellows and the launch of the Zandra I. Flemister ‘73 Fellowship program. John opened the ceremony with remarks on Zandra’s life and accomplishments, sharing charming anecdotes that attest to her charisma and impact. 

[Photo of Zandra’s State Department ID next to a blue rose pin.]

The 2023 inaugural Flemister Fellows are Mary Raines Alexander (International Affairs ‘26) and Jenia Browne (International Affairs, BA ‘24). They were recognized for outstanding achievements in the discipline of International Affairs. Both were awarded a blue rose pin, which is a symbolic representation of support among Black women in the Secret Service. 

Reflecting on her award, Mary notes: “When it comes to the fellowship, I am really grateful for recognition from the university in general, especially those who took the time to consider me for this fellowship. Specific to this award though, I am even more appreciative of the privilege to honor Zandra, who was an intelligent, kind, and remarkable woman. Her work abroad but especially in civil rights is something I personally look up to with great admiration. Such an award makes the hard work I want to do seem that more attainable, especially with the legacy of Zandra supporting and encouraging me.”

[Mary Raines Alexander (International Affairs ‘26) and Jenia Browne (International Affairs, BA ‘24) proudly present their blue rose pins.]

The Zandra Flemister ‘73 Trailblazer Fund will continue Zandra’s lifelong passion for foreign affairs and making a difference in the world. Flemister may have passed on, but her leadership and impact through service will continue through countless future generations of changemakers. 

For those interested in learning more about Zandra’s legacy and creating greater impact through the Fund, please contact CSSH Advancement: | 617.373.3474.

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