Tommy Preston, '07, '11: Champion for South Carolina
A lot of people might talk about wanting to make a difference, but Tommy Preston, ’07, ’11 JD, puts words into action in more ways than one. The former student body president not only helped develop the popular Cocky’s Reading Express literacy program, but he also continues to be active for his alma mater and his home state.
Tommy grew up in Clemson, South Carolina. He had always wanted to go to school in Washington, DC, and had already been accepted to several schools near the nation’s capital when a high school friend encouraged him to visit the Carolina campus.
“I came with him one day while he was taking placement exams during the summer,” Tommy says. “I walked around campus, went home and decided I was going to Carolina. There was something about the campus that I knew this was the right place for me.”
Despite serving as the student body president of his high school, Tommy says he hadn’t intended to get involved with student government upon entering Carolina; however, he was sought out by individuals within the student government office.
“They did a good job of identifying freshmen who should be involved in student government,” Tommy says. “I remember meeting the student body vice president that year, Zach Scott, and he told me he wanted me to try out for the Freshman Council, which is the freshman group in student government. I applied, interviewed and was accepted, and that’s where it all started.”
Tommy went on to become a student senator as a sophomore and was the student body treasurer as a junior before ascending to the presidency as a senior for the 2006-07 school year.
In addition to his roles in student government, Tommy was also a part of My Carolina Alumni Association’s student membership
program. He now serves on the association’s Board of Governors.
Hitting the Road with Cocky
It was because of Tommy’s involvement in student government that the idea for Cocky’s Reading Express was born.
The program started with an idea he had in 2005 while in his residence-hall room in Preston College following a visit from Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies. Bierbauer had requested that student government help get students involved in a university-wide literacy effort to complement the Children, Libraries, and Literacy campaign sponsored by the School of Library and Information Science. Tommy and other student government leaders put the program together.
“The cool thing about it is that we’re the only university in the country that has a program like this,” Tommy says. “It’s a mascot-driven literacy program. The other cool aspect is that it is student driven. Initially, we went into schools and libraries, and it’s expanded way beyond that now. We read to children, talk about the importance of reading and literacy, and the big part is that we give books to the children with whom we come into contact. They make the promise to Cocky that they’re going to read the book with their families and simply enjoy reading. For many of the children with whom the program comes in contact, this is the first book they would have ever received. It’s just remarkable.”
Initially, a group of 10 student government leaders went into the schools during the Christmas holiday, and now the program has grown to include student-athletes, graduate students and university faculty and staff.
“We thought it might be a
one-time kind of thing where we would give up our Christmas break and go
to the schools and libraries to talk to kids about the importance of
reading," Tommy says. "It’s certainly become a university-wide effort. Cocky is
instrumental in this. You can take him anywhere in the state and the
children love him, and adults love him too. One of the things I continue to hear from the folks running the program
now is that having Cocky come into the community actually helps bring
in the parents, where some of the schools may have had a difficult time
getting the parents involved."
“(First lady) Patricia Moore Pastides is a big part of this effort," Tommy continues. "She
has done nutritional literacy and has gone into communities doing
cooking demonstrations for kids and families. We’re doing financial
literacy, too. There are so many different things we’re doing with this
program now. It’s just a huge presence in South Carolina.”
The program found legs thanks to Dr. Andrew Sorensen, university president at the time.
“President Sorensen gave us some money to buy some books to take around to the schools we visited,” Tommy says. “When we came back from Christmas break, we knew the program was already beyond what we had expected. We had probably a couple hundred schools leave messages over the holidays for us to schedule visits.”
To date, the program has handed out more than 46,000 books to children around the state. Tommy is more than thrilled to see the program expand, evolve and have a statewide impact.
“I’m sure they’ve hit almost every county in South Carolina by now, but the program is now not only going to schools and libraries,” Tommy says. “They do family nights in communities, getting families to talk about literacy.”
Looking Back and Moving Forward
Working with Dr. Sorensen and helping to get Cocky’s Reading Express off the ground are among Tommy's best memories of his days on campus.
“We had a close relationship,” Tommy says of Dr. Sorensen. “He really wanted student government leaders to be involved with what’s happening at the university. In fact, I don’t remember a major decision that was being made at the university that directly impacted students where he didn’t call me or speak with me to get my take on it. He had a huge impact on me as an individual.”
Tommy says he still takes the lessons he learned from Dr. Sorensen with him in his everyday life.
While Cocky’s Ready Express continues to roll on, Tommy is now practicing law at Nexsen Pruet in Columbia, working in the firm’s public policy and economic development groups.
“The work that our firm does is to bring companies and jobs to the state of South Carolina,” Tommy says. “I know lawyers can get a bad reputation sometimes, but this is certainly an area where I feel like I’m making a difference for my state. That’s one of the things that always intrigued me about getting into student government and wanting to make a difference. So to come to work and still be able to do that is pretty cool.”
Tommy met his wife, Felicia, at law school. She earned her undergraduate degree at Clemson, and their paths didn’t cross until law school. He sees that as just another way that Carolina has been such big part of his life.
As you might expect, Tommy is often asked about a future in politics.
“I don’t have to be a politician to make a difference,” Tommy says. “I chose to go to school and law school in this state, and then work in this state. So I just want to make a difference in South Carolina. I know God has a plan for all of us. I just try to be obedient and follow the plan He has for me.”