By Curt Yeomans
Sean Collier knew he wanted to talk to Ashley McCollum the minute he laid his eyes upon her at a party in 2006 at Alabama State University.
Collier was visiting the school with friends. During the party, which was being thrown in McCollum's honor, Collier worked up the nerve to approach the then-Alabama State freshman. She was upset because of "girl trouble," and he offered her someone to talk to.
"She was beautiful," said Collier. "She had a beautiful smile, and still does."
Collier, 24, a Clayton County firefighter, proposed to McCollum, 21, a senior biology major at Alabama State, on Dec. 13, in front of the ocean-themed tank at the Georgia Aquarium.
They are competing in the "Will You Marry Me?" contest, sponsored by Essence magazine, and Tiffany and Co.
The competition pits five couples from across the nation against one another. People can log onto www.essence.com/packages/willyoumarryme/ from now until Feb. 12, and view the proposals for each couple, read the response letters, and view a photo gallery. People are also asked to vote for their favorite wedding proposal.
The couple which receives the most votes will win a $50,000 wedding, according to Nazenet Habtezghi, an assistant editor at Essence.
To get into the group of five contestants, the men had to write an essay on why they love their girlfriends, and why they wanted to get married.
"I wrote about how I have been with a woman who is extremely good, and kind, and sweet, and I have a feeling with her that I've never felt before," said Collier.
Habtezghi said she chose Collier and McCollum because, while reading his essay, she realized he had deep feelings for his girlfriend. "It was clear that he had a sincere dedication and love for her," said Habtezghi. "He was valuing her as an individual ... And, he's a fireman, so he's constantly putting other people before himself, and he takes that same approach to how he treats Ashley."
Once Collier and McCollum were selected as one of the couples -- without McCollum's knowledge -- Essence staffers worked with Collier to set up a proposal that was tailored specifically to the couple.
Habtezghi said the Georgia Aquarium was selected as a setting because it held special meaning for McCollum. First, she is studying biology, and second, she enjoys visiting the aquarium to see the marine life.
However, Collier had to come up with a way to get McCollum to the aquarium. He used his mother's birthday, which was a day earlier, as an excuse. He told his girlfriend they were going to surprise his mother, Kim, at the aquarium, and then take her to a birthday luncheon.
What McCollum did not know was that Collier's mother was at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, picking up the fiancee-to-be's relatives.
While Collier and McCollum were walking through the aquarium's Ocean Voyager exhibit, they were stopped in the room, which has a large glass wall looking out to the ocean exhibit. An aquarium employee with a camera, who was working with Essence staffers, wanted to ask the couple some questions.
"The employee was asking us what we liked about the aquarium, and then she said a scuba diver had gotten in her shot and she'd needed to do it over again," said McCollum.
When McCollum turned to look at the diver, she saw a sign in his hands. It said "Ashley, Sean has a question to ask you," but it's meaning did not register with the fiancee-to-be, at first.
"I had to read it at least three times, and when Sean started talking to me, and grabbed my hand, I realized what was happening," said McCollum.
The answer was, "Yes."
Then their relatives and Essence staffers came out of hiding to congratulate the couple. The moment was also caught on film by Essence employees, who were staying out of sight during the exchange.
McCollum said it was ironic that the engagement happened when it did. Collier and McCollum were friends for a year and a half before they started dating. In January 2008, McCollum sent out a text message to her friends, which changed everything.
She asked them where they saw their relationships with her going in 2008.
"I replied, 'friends working towards our engagement,'" said Collier.
Collier said McCollum makes him happy, because they talk about everything together, and while they have had their ups and downs, he said, "Our downs have never come close to outweighing the good." The couple sees each other as much as possible, with him driving to Montgomery, Ala., whenever he gets a chance, and her driving to Riverdale every other weekend.
"I'm ready to marry her," said Collier, while he was standing in the parking lot of a fire station near his Riverdale home. "I'd marry her right here, right now."
McCollum said she likes being engaged to Collier because "he's very goal-oriented, very spiritual, and very into life. Whenever I'm having a bad day, he knows how to cheer me up. Overall, he's a good person. He's got a great heart."
On the Net:
Essence Magazine's "Will You Marry Me?" Contest: www.essence.com/packages/willyoumarryme