Posted on: August 12, 2016; Updated on: August 12, 2016
By Dan Cook, email@example.com, 777-7366
As a Carolinian, Tommy Preston’s commitment knows no limits — despite the fact that he grew up in Clemson.
Preston’s evolution into a stalwart Gamecock has been a bit of a sore spot with some members of his family. A 2007 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences and 2011 School of Law graduate, Preston is the new president of the My Carolina Alumni Association. He was the first in his family to earn a four-year degree. Nonetheless, aside from his mother and a few other family members he has been able to convert to Gamecocks, his family’s loyalties lie with a certain orange tiger about 130 miles northwest of Columbia.
“My mom is from Pennsylvania, so she didn’t really have an allegiance to any S.C. schools,” says Preston, who become a parent himself just a year ago with the birth of his daughter, Charlotte. “My dad’s family has lived in Clemson for generations and are huge fans. So the thought that I would leave there and go to USC was a hard pill to swallow for most of them.”
Preston could have gone just about anywhere for college, and he originally had his heart set on Washington, D.C., where he could be close to the political action. But a trip to Columbia with a friend who had enrolled at the University of South Carolina opened his eyes to the possibilities in his home state.
“I had never spent much time here in Columbia, so I was walking around the campus and seeing how close it was to the state Capitol,” he says. “I realized I could have the same experience here in my own state.”
“It’s great to have an Alumni Center — a home for alumni to come back to. But what’s most important is what we do inside that building — what we do to better connect our alumni to the university, what we do to connect students to alumni. That’s what’s so exciting about being in this role at this time in history.”
Tommy Preston, president of the My Carolina Alumni Association
Preston’s experiences at Carolina were amazing. As an undergrad, he launched the Cocky’s Reading Express literacy initiative and developed close relationships with former university President Andrew Sorensen and former Mayor Bob Coble. He even received a grant to take 20 students from Preston College to Washington, D.C., to learn about the political process.
“We got a private tour of the Capitol from Sen. (Lindsey) Graham’s office, visited the White House, went to the Smithsonian museums and attended a play at Ford’s Theatre,” Preston recalls.
It all started with his decision to get involved in student leadership activities. As a freshman, Preston applied to join the Freshman Council, a service-oriented group that is part of Student Government. As a sophomore, he served in the Student Senate. In his junior year, he was student body treasurer. In his senior year, he was student body president.
“Coming to Carolina, I assumed I would focus on academics and work at the Statehouse,” he says. “I certainly never thought that I would be student body president. But that Freshman Council experience gave me the motivation to continue.”
Even with his active life at Carolina, Preston found time to get engaged in politics, too. He worked as a tour guide at the Statehouse, interned with former Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum and worked for his hometown state senator.
After receiving his political science degree, Preston took a year off to work directly for Sorensen, and then headed to the School of Law. It was there that he met his future wife, Felicia, a Clemson grad. Upon graduation, he was hired by Nexsen Pruet, where he worked for five years representing major corporate clients throughout the state. One day, a client called to offer him a job. The client was The Boeing Company; the job is director of national strategy and engagement for South Carolina.
“The joke is that I’m the ambassador for Boeing in South Carolina, and I do feel that way,” he says. “For a guy who grew up in South Carolina to work for one of the largest corporations in the world is something I never would have imagined — and to be able to help make my state better by the work that I do on a daily basis, it is just an amazing experience.”
Even with Preston’s big job at Boeing, his work at Carolina isn’t done. On July 1, he became the youngest and first African-American president of the My Carolina Alumni Association; he previously was chair of the university’s Board of Visitors.
“I recognize the historic nature of me serving in this role, but I think that more than anything it says who we are as a university — that race or age isn’t an issue when determining our alumni association leaders,” he says. “Our university is filled with such wonderful diversity, so it's really natural that someone like me or any other alum can have an opportunity like this — because that’s simply who we are.”
Preston is a young, dynamic leader for an organization that is riding high with its new Alumni Center in the heart of Columbia’s Vista district, and he hopes to use the center to help alumni engage more with students, the university and each other.
“It’s great to have an Alumni Center — a home for alumni to come back to,” Preston says. “But what’s most important is what we do inside that building — what we do to better connect our alumni to the university, what we do to connect students to alumni. And the center gives us that opportunity. That’s what’s so exciting about being in this role at this time in history.”