***This article appeared in the May 15th edition of the Spartanburg Herald Journal and was written by Gary Glancy***
Tiana Pires not only adapts to change, she creates and embraces it.
Her ability to do so has given the new Converse College graduate not only an intriguingly bright future, but also peace of mind and soul from having built a relationship with the father she didn’t know for 16 years before he died in late December.
And through it all, Pires remains the energetic, charismatic personality that she hopes someday will make her a motivational speaker or even the next Oprah Winfrey.
Jeff Barker, vice president of academic affairs at Converse, isn’t betting against her.
“When you meet her, she will bowl you over,” Barker said. “She is incredibly impressive, incredibly polished and she’s highly motivated. There are some students when you meet them you think that they will do well, and some students that you know will do well, and (Pires) is one of the latter.”
Blazing a trail
Pires was the first student to complete Converse’s individualized major program, implemented in 2003-04 as part of the college’s ongoing development of curriculum, Barker said.
Pires graduates today with a degree in oral and written communications studies, a major she created, which combines the academic disciplines of psychology, English and theater.
“I don’t know what I would have done if Converse didn’t offer an individualized major,” said Pires, who has been accepted into the dual master’s program in counseling and organizational psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. “I’m very abstract, and I like so many different things it’s hard to zoom it down to one specific thing, so I think definitely for people who don’t know exactly what they want to do but have a lot of interests, they need to look into it.”
According to Converse President Betsy Fleming, the program is part of the college’s “Creative Minds,” a strategic vision and plan to develop “creative thinkers and doers” and “global citizens who want to affect positive change.”
“We felt like this was a great opportunity because there’s so much interest and need for more interdisciplinary work,” Fleming said, “to allow students to really kind of get more focused in areas that are most interesting and relevant to their passions and dreams and career aspirations.
“And it’s been amazing to see the different students that have chosen to pursue this in a pretty short period of time.”
Pires entered Converse as a biology major with a dream to become an oral surgeon and — because of her commitment to community service — joined Dentists Without Borders, which provides dental care to the underserved of developing countries.
But one night during the spring of her sophomore year, Pires was studying for an organic chemistry exam when she turned on the television and listened to a sermon by noted pastor and author Joel Osteen.
“I was struggling,” Pires said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so hard, I’m not enjoying this, and there’s really no reason I should be crying over studying.’ If you’re doing something you love, it shouldn’t be that difficult, and I was really struggling with it. I didn’t know who (Osteen) was, but he was talking about how God gives you certain abilities and that you need to play to your strengths and play to your gifts.
“And I thought, ‘What am I good at?’ Talking to people — that’s what I do. I talk to people all the time; I’m a socialite; I coordinate things; I love being around people, giving advice to people. So at that moment, I stopped studying for my exam and started thinking about what I wanted my individualized major to be.”
Pires sat on the floor late that night with her best friend, Katie Quigley, and began developing a proposal for a major — which has to be developed with and approved by an academic committee and is the first requirement for the major.
Pires, Barker and Fleming said the program involves a lot of work. It requires the completion of at least 16 major courses — with a minimum of five in each of three disciplines — plus a seminar-level course in at least two of the disciplines.
“The basic goal was to give students who had initiative, and an interest in more than two areas, the opportunity to develop a major,” Barker said. “We have a large number of double majors, but what we wanted to do was design a program for highly motivated students — students that had a theme that linked at least three areas and wanted to pursue that.
“(Pires is) exactly what we had in mind. She was looking at something that went beyond psychology, that went beyond the performance aspects of theater and beyond the writing aspects of English, but that brought all three of them together.”
The final requirement was a senior Capstone project, which incorporates all three areas and involves a presentation to the college community.
Pires, using PowerPoint as well as a couch on stage to give her performance the feel of a talk show, titled her project, “From Sophomoric to Superwoman: How to Get a Man and Keep Him,” which drew on her tendency to give relationship advice to friends and fellow students.
Pires said her performance was so well-received that, afterward, students approached her in person and sent e-mails seeking her advice.
Loss and gain
According to Fleming, Pires is equally eager to seek advice.
“I have to tell you, hands down, there’s not a student who I have seen in my open office hours more frequently than Tiana,” Fleming said. “In those times together we talked about successes and failures, we talked about dating and boyfriends.
“She has so much enthusiasm and interest in life and taking advantage of learning from other people’s experiences. She’s a real relationship-builder and is just really curious about learning, most especially in relation to people. It’s been amazing to watch those communication skills, those interpersonal skills, those leadership skills grow over the past four years.”
One of the topics the two women discussed this year was the death of Pires’ father, David Pires — something Fleming experienced herself last fall.
Pires, who grew up in the Boston area before moving to Charlotte, N.C., began communicating with her father after not knowing him for the first 16 years of her life.
It was sporadic at first since Pires was hurt that her father left her and the family. But she learned to forgive and the relationship grew.
Her father, however, had colon cancer, and, during Pires’ junior year at Converse, needed a blood transfusion. But, as a Jehovah’s Witness, it was against his religion, so he refused.
Pires convinced her father to make an exception for his own blood daughter, and in the middle of midterms, she flew to Boston to save his life.
“The funny thing is, my entire life I have never been able to donate blood,” Pires said. “My veins are too small and they could never get blood out of it. And so when I got up there, I said, ‘Lord, please let me be able to donate blood, because if they don’t get my blood, then he’s not going to live.’
“They poked me just twice and got two pints of blood out of me…so he got my blood, and it ended up extending his life for a year.”
On Dec. 30, as a Christmas gift, Pires’ boyfriend drove her to Boston to see her father. After more than 16 hours of driving and just 30 minutes from the hospital, she got a call from her aunt saying her father finally succumbed to the cancer.
“It’s been a really difficult situation, and I don’t think I’ve had time to grieve and be sad yet because I am so busy,” Pires said. “I think it’s really going to hit this summer when I have more time.”
Pires didn’t get a chance to say goodbye but cherishes the memories she was able to create with him the past five years.
“It has served me so much better to forgive him and get to know him and take time to understand why things happen the way they happen,” she said, “because I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily lost but gained. I think being able to forgive and put that aside has strengthened me.”
It’s also an experience Pires will be able to take with her to share with others in whatever professional endeavors she chooses to pursue — which could be anything from a motivational speaker to a counseling psychologist.
“I’m excited,” Fleming said. “She’s one of those alumnae that I will be eager to watch how her life evolves, because I think she’ll have a great story to tell as she moves through her life.”