Kwanzaa Celebration Honors Alumna

February 18, 2020

Every year, the Mary Baldwin University (MBU) community gathers together to celebrate Kwanzaa with music, dancing, skits, and food. But this year’s gathering was extra special, as the Office of Inclusive Excellence dedicated the 2020 event to Tonquise “TQ” Evans, a 2003 alumna who last June was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and given six months to live. While a student at MBU, Evans was responsible for creating the school’s African-American theatre troupe, the Kuumba Players, and has since served as a mentor to current students.

“Because of her engagement with the university, I thought it was important to do something for her, to let her know that we were being supportive during this difficult time,” said Rev. Andrea Cornett-Scott, associate provost for Inclusive Excellence.

Last June, Evans woke up one morning with a burning sensation in her stomach. She went to the hospital but was so convinced that it was going to be nothing that she told her husband to just drop her off. When the doctors found the cancer, Evans made a decision — to not accept the diagnosis.

She made lifestyle changes, switching to a plant-based diet, meeting with spiritual and healing advisors, and praying and meditating daily. Last summer, Evans underwent multiple surgeries to remove the tumor from her colon, which left her wearing a colostomy bag for several months. She then had other operations, including a hysterectomy, to remove the cancer from other parts of her body. Evans finished her first (and, she hopes, last) round of chemotherapy in early February.

Cornett-Scott placed a tribute to Evans in the celebration’s program, and asked for alumnae to make financial contributions to help Evans and her family cover medical costs, as well as write notes of encouragement. Cornett-Scott says the community at MBU is very close, and it was not unusual for so many alumni to return to campus and honor Evans — especially when she’s done so much for the Mary Baldwin community.

“Because of her engagement with the university, I thought it was important to do something for her.”
Rev. Andrea Cornett-Scott, associate provost for Inclusive Excellence

Evans came to MBU in 1999 and likes to joke that she was “courted” by the school when they sent her a Valentine’s Day card with a beautiful picture of campus. As a graduate of a performing arts high school in Atlanta, Evans was interested in participating in MBU’s theatre productions.

“I’ve always enjoyed theater because it gives a sense of oneness with other people by forcing you to experience life in someone else’s shoes,” said Evans. “It makes us more open, more human.”

Cornett-Scott served as Evans’ academic advisor while she was a student, and said that Evans would light up the stage during a performance.

“Even in a small role, she would steal the show because she was so talented,” Cornett-Scott said. “Her level of ability was so far advanced.”

But Evans was accustomed to diverse options for plays at her high school, and when she came to MBU, she thought it was important to make sure theater students had the opportunity to experience the voices of black and brown people. When Cornett-Scott discovered Evans’ interest in black theater, she suggested Evans form an African-American theatre troupe.

The Kuumba Players made their debut in 2000. Cornett-Scott said Evans had the ability to take students who had never been on stage and groom them into being wonderful actors. But for Evans, the Kuumba Players was a way for the 18-year-old to feel more comfortable in a new city whose name she didn’t know how to pronounce.

“I was trying to make Mary Baldwin feel like home,” Evans said. “This was just an outlet for me, and I didn’t know it would become this thing that years later would be something important for so many other people.”

MBU alums during the 24th annual Kwanzaa celebration

Evans has continued to stay involved with MBU since graduation, a decision she says is thanks to Cornett-Scott.

“When students graduate, she has a way of staying connected and remembering the things that drove them,” said Evans. “She knew that I had an amazing experience at Mary Baldwin, and that I like to talk about it. I know what Mary Baldwin has meant to me, and I like to give perspective to current students about what it can mean for their lives.”

Evans has since served as a guest director for the Kuumba Players and even made a cameo in one of the plays. While living in Charlottesville, she returned to help Cornett-Scott organize Kwanzaa celebrations over the years. Evans currently works as the head of people operations for an advertising and technology company, and she uses her HR experience to lead workshops on resume writing, interviewing, and branding for MBU students.

Evans has three biological children, and she and her husband (whom she met through an MBU alumna) recently adopted a daughter they’ve fostered since birth. In addition to being a mom and an HR executive, Evans is also a birth doula. She had a doula during her own delivery who helped create such a positive birth experience that Evans wanted to be able to create that for other women. Her interactions with new moms led to the creation of her company, Prende Pants, a clothing option to aid in women’s health after they’ve given birth. The high-waisted, post-pregnancy leggings have a built-in belly wrap made out of recycled water bottles that supports abdominal muscles (which have been separated for nine months) and helps the uterus shrink and heal back into shape.

While doctors first told Evans that the average person with her type of diagnosis has about six months to live, her outlook now seems brighter. In her last scan, they found cancer in just one small spot — and it was shrinking. Evans continues to hold on to the positive outlooks she’s had since last June.

“My life is actually more enriched with cancer,” Evans said. “I’m a better mom. I’m a better wife. My parents call me all the time. It’s improved every relationship with every single person in my entire life and made them beautiful and wonderful.”

Evans wasn’t able to come to this year’s Kwanzaa celebration, as she had just completed chemotherapy, but Cornett-Scott sent her a video.

“I was humbly surprised,” said Evans. “I shed tears the entire time. Knowing these students and alumnae are thinking of me and praying for me, I don’t even have words. It just felt like love.”

Learn more about Prende Pants, or contribute to help Evans with medical expenses.

“My life is actually more enriched with cancer. I’m a better mom. I’m a better wife. My parents call me all the time. It’s improved every relationship with every single person in my entire life and made them beautiful and wonderful.”
TQ Evans '03