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Laura Preston

Laura Preston

Pandemic Redirects Preston into Medical Assisting

Published on April 18, 2024 - 11 a.m.

At 52, Laura Preston of Niles pivoted from careers with retail giants such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue and creative director for an Ohio vitamin company’s five-member marketing team to Southwestern Michigan College’s medical assistant certificate program.

Medical assistants work closely with patients and doctors to keep medical clinics and offices running smoothly. They keep patient’s files organized and accessible and perform basic procedures such as drawing blood.

Preston graduated from Sturgis High School in 1989, majored in education at Eastern Michigan University in 1989-90 and communications in 1991-92 at Western Michigan University until a job with Hudson’s pulled her into retail’s orbit.

“I got fast-tracked into their management program, quit school and went to work fulltime,” she said. “My favorite high school teacher taught speech. I competed in forensics (debate) and loved theatre, drama and English literature. I thought I was going to become a teacher.”

But Hudson’s led to Saks and Nordstrom in Chicago. For Saks, she was the fine fragrance business manager from February 2010 to September 2013, directly  managing a team of 10.

For Nordstrom, Preston oversaw the cosmetics department from September 2013 to January 2015, directly managing a team of 30 and co-managing a team of 60.

“I worked with vendors in the cosmetic industry and have been vice president of two different cosmetic companies sold to venture capital groups,” Preston said. “I lived in New York City. I loved the pace of retail and the creativity. I loved the cosmetics industry because on that makeup floor, all those different brands have account executives, so we did events. When I lived in Chicago, I worked for Nordstrom and for Marshall Field on State Street.” The upscale department store in 2006 became part of Macy’s chain.

“My theory of life is that I don’t want to be a clock-puncher,” Preston said. “I always want to do something I love so it doesn’t feel like you’re going to work. That’s one reason I’m single with no children. My whole life I’ve worked 60-80 hours a week and traveled. I also lived in Beverly Hills and Dallas. I wanted to live in a big city so I always took opportunities.”

“So this season of my life has been hard,” Preston said.

The house she bought in Niles four years ago next to her mother is the first she has ever owned. She is also caring for her father with dementia in Three Rivers. Even her pug, Lola, is struggling after losing use of her back legs.

With pandemic lockdowns making things even “weirder,” Preston decided it was time to move home from Wadsworth, Ohio. Her brother still lives in Sturgis.

“At the end of June, on my 49th birthday,” she said, “I drove a U-Haul truck from Ohio.  As a city girl, I hate cars. I’d rather take the subway. When I bought the house and moved, I was still creative marketing director for the vitamin company, working remotely for a year and a half. I did all the social media, designed trade show booths and wrote all the marketing sales copy. But the industry imploded and a ton of jobs was eliminated, including mine.”

A non-compete agreement prevented her from working in the bariatric industry for a year. She had gastric bypass surgery 19 years ago and taught bariatric patients about vitamins.

“I worked in retail, got into cosmetics within retail at Saks,” Preston said. “I volunteered to work conferences and do projects within the weight-loss surgery industry. I helped out at The Flower Cart in Niles for a while. I love flowers, but Valentine’s Day at a flower shop is worse than Christmas in retail."

Preston applied to Michigan Reconnect, which provides free or reduced tuition to eligible residents 21 and older lacking associate or bachelor’s degrees.

“I had three fall classes — biology, medical terminology and medical assisting, which I thought were going to kill me,” though she received A’s. She takes one course this summer, three in the fall then does her internship in January.

“I might work in geriatrics because I have compassion for elderly people, but never in a pediatrician’s office because I will not give kids shots. I could work in a nursing home because I will be able to do billing and coding.”

“When I tell you this has been one of the hardest things I have ever done, I promise it is not an exaggeration. I’m so grateful for Michigan Reconnect. People don’t have to stay in dead-end worlds,” Preston said. “At any age and at any point in your career, you can come back to school and choose differently. COVID taught me that quality of life and the impact you can make matter most."