KOKOMO, Ind. – Quiana Preston never saw herself going to college when she was growing up.
“Nobody in my household had a college degree,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone who looked like me early on in my life. When I took my first professional position, I began to see leaders and mentors who looked like me. I learned so much about myself as a woman, as a black woman. They were very intentional about helping me understand my role as a black woman, and what I could do to impact others.”
Now, as an academic advisor at Indiana University Kokomo, she views it as her responsibility to be a role model to underrepresented students — in particular, to women of color.
“For me, seeing someone else striving for that, of my same ethnicity, it brings some empowerment. You have that cumulative effect of not feeling some important, and you start feeling like you’re one step closer to not being able to accomplish something,” she said. “Then you start to see other people who look like you, and you feel empowered, like you can do it.”
While her job is to coach them for academic success, Preston strives to help them think creatively about their future plans.
“I mentor young women all the time, especially about their dreams, and more importantly about relationships,” she said. “I want them to know their worth, and it’s not about somebody coming to rescue you, but someone to come be a teammate with you. Everything you need is inside you, if you know who you are.”
She also feels “a heavy burden” of responsibility to set the example for her young nieces.
“They are the young girls of the world for me,” she said. “They are very impressionable, and they talk to me about the things that are going on in high schools, things I didn’t have to experience when I was their age. I feel like everything I do, they look up to me. Whenever I make a decision, I think, would they gain from this?”
Preston calls herself lucky to have grown up in Kokomo, surrounded with a core group of female friends and a strong faith community at her church youth group. She hadn’t envisioned herself going to college, after being in classes for children with learning disabilities as a child.
“I thought I’d be married with kids, a soccer mom, a PTA mom,” she said. “I can just say that every day an opportunity came my way, for every ‘no’ I gave, I gave a ‘yes’ the next time, and then my ‘yeses’ became stronger, and I began to know this is who I was, and what I do.”
She followed up her bachelor’s degree in communication with a master’s in higher education administration, before taking her first professional job in Illinois. Later she earned a Ph.D. in strategic leadership, to satisfy her curiosity about what leadership is. Her focus was on empathetic leadership, studying how understanding the needs of others impacts leadership.
Those are skills she uses daily as an academic advisor, working with students majoring in sciences and criminal justice, and also those still deciding their major.
“You have to empathize with the students,” Preston said. “They come in with all kinds of stories and experiences. Sometimes you want to take on the mother role, and that’s where the coaching comes in. You learn to stay outside the role of mother, asking questions to help them facilitate their own discovery.”
Preston believes it is important to have a Black History Month, to remind everyone how African Americans have impacted the world.
“It’s needed because of the fact there has been so much absence of appreciating the contributions of our culture, and what we’ve done,” she said. “Not only because of that absence but to remind us all, not just those from the majority, but everybody, of the type of impact and influence different cultures have had on the world.
“It’s awareness, and allowing people to focus on the fact there are so many contributions that come from so many different people, and let’s not forget it.”