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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Creative writing graduate infuses experiences as ER nurse, mother, pilot, student into stories

Garima Thapa
Nancy Preston, an undergrad at Wichita State, smiles while in class. After completing her bachelor’s in creative writing, Preston will go on to graduate school where she hopes to become a creative writing professor.

Creative writing professor Margaret Dawe has been teaching students for decades how to capture the most intense, once-in-a-lifetime situations in their creative writing projects. Nancy Preston, one of Dawe’s students and a soon-to-be graduate in creative writing, said she doesn’t just write about these experiences and situations — she lives them, too. 

A former emergency room nurse and flight school student, Preston uses each keystroke of lived intensity to tell moving, authentic stories — a skill she will continue to cultivate and will learn how to teach to others when she begins her master’s program next semester.

Preston began her educational journey in 2000 at Wichita State, originally studying to become an English teacher. As Preston navigated university, she found herself unexpectedly burned by its demands. Adding to the weight was her father’s declining health.

“(College) didn’t work out. Life was life-ing,” Preston said.

Preston instead jumped on the opportunity to become a pilot, enrolling in an aeronautics school in Oklahoma in 2001. After reading “James and the Giant Peach” in third grade, Preston said the idea of becoming a pilot “was in my head” and couldn’t be shaken.

Again, life had other plans for Preston. She became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Noelle, in 2003.

“I went from wild party girl in high school to mom of one of the coolest human beings I’ve ever met,” Preston said. “That really changed my life.”

To support herself and her daughter as a single mother, Preston reoriented and enrolled in online courses for nursing at Butler Community College. She received her associate’s degree and began work immediately as a registered nurse, primarily in the emergency room of Wesley Medical Center. 

Preston said the relationship-building and opportunity to help others in the ER, which she called “the coolest place in medicine,” introduced her to a new level of self-fulfillment.

“Someone walks in, for any reason on the planet, asking for help, and you help them in whatever capacity you can. There’s no other area of medicine like it,” Preston said.

While ER nursing was “the love of my life,” Preston struggled with “classic health care burnout.” She said the system isn’t built to provide employees with sustainable, healthy careers.

It was in 2019 that Preston “got the notion” to take a creative writing class. Preston said she wasn’t ready to give up on going back to school, even if it didn’t yield career opportunities.

“I wasn’t planning on actually doing anything with my creative writing degree,” Preston said. “It was just a dream that I had, and I decided to accomplish it.”

She said the death of her father, “the most important person that’s ever come into my life,” inspired her to pursue her dreams in his memory.

“Before my dad got sick, he was going to go back to school to be a minister. He wasn’t able to do that, and so it’s always been in the back of my brain, like, ‘Don’t live your life without completing that journey,’” Preston said. “I think I just decided that I didn’t want to live my life without fulfilling that dream.”

While coming back to Wichita State campus almost 20 years later was “surreal,” Preston said she was able to navigate thanks to the help of friends, like creative writing students Trey Freud and Tom Tanguma and professors like Dawe.

Nancy Preston laughs with classmates on April 23. Preston is aformer emergency room nurse and flight school student (Garima Thapa)

“(Dawe is) amazing to me,” Preston said. “Very inspirational and, really, she’s been a driving force for me realizing that I could go back to school and accomplish this.”

Preston started school not long before her daughter, Noelle, began embarking on her own collegiate journey. While Preston said it’s strange that her classmates are the same age as her daughter, she welcomes the chance to connect with her peers intellectually and creatively outside of age constraints.

“And that line gets blurred because once you start honing in on, like, an actual degree and taking classes specific to that, it becomes almost just peers,” Preston said.

When Dawe first met Preston in one of her introductory writing courses, she said Preston came into class already skilled at creating dramatic situations in her stories.

“In a short period of time, she was able to structure a story with a beginning, middle and end, and very naturally, the conflict escalated,” Dawe said. “(In her stories) there’s a life at stake. There was authenticity … The situation was so dire, (and there were) no wasted words.”

Preston’s early stories were largely based on her experiences, which Dawe said gives her invaluable insight when crafting a narrative. From scenes set in hospital rooms to storylines based on her favorite childhood fairytales, Dawe praised Preston’s ability to merge reality with fiction in a comprehensible way.

“It’s really such an advantage to have all that material,” Dawe said. “She’s doing school in order to get better at her craft, but … you know, I can’t teach someone that material.”

Preston will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and will begin her master’s of fine arts degree at Wichita State in August. 

Preston said that she hopes to someday be like the instructors who helped her when her father was sick or when she returned to university.

“There is something about teachers that are able to see that spark and magic, even if you don’t have other people in your life that are able to see it,” Preston said.

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About the Contributors
Allison Campbell
Allison Campbell, Editor in Chief
Allison Campbell is the editor in chief of The Sunflower. Campbell is a junior pursuing a journalism and media production degree with a minor in English. Campbell hopes to pursue a career in writing or editing after graduation. They use any pronouns.
Garima Thapa
Garima Thapa, Photographer
Garima Thapa is a second-year photographer for The Sunflower.

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