By Simone Lee, GoPSUSports.com student special feature writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Lady Lion head coach Coquese Washington. A name recognized by so many, both at Penn State and throughout the entire nation. In her 10th season at the helm of the program, Washington is in a category of her own.
Arriving at Penn State, Washington became Penn State's first African American female head coach in Happy Valley. Her selfless passion for the betterment of her student-athletes as well as the community, all demonstrate her commitment in shaping Nittany Lion athletics history.
Throughout her tenure, Washington's long list of accomplishments only continues to grow. A member of the Greater Flint Hall of Fame, a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year honoree and a two-time Black Coaches Association (BCA) Female Coach of the Year recipient, these honors are just a sampling of her career highlights.
Since arriving on campus, Washington has brought the Lady Lions back into the national spotlight, igniting energy on the court to change the program for the better.
Washington however, cares not just about her team's performance on the court though, placing just as much emphasis on how her teams spend time off the court too.
"We try to expose our student-athletes to all the various aspects of what the human condition means and it has to be about us being external," Washington said. "Getting out of our comfort zone, getting outside of our own world that can be quite insular at times, and being exposed to a variety of things - when you do that I think that empathy, sympathy and connection to others just grows."
Washington's emphasis on linking the Lady Lions basketball program with community initiatives has been an ongoing piece of the foundation of the program since she first arrived at Penn State.
Establishing one of her first community outreach projects, Washington partnered with the Centre County Women's Resource Center. Along with executive director Anne Ard, the two joined together to fundraise, spread awareness and provide resources to those impacted by domestic violence. As a result, Coquese's Drive, an annual golf tournament was formed, totaling more than $170,000 in its nine years of existence, all to benefit the resource center.
"When I think about diversity at Penn State and Penn State athletics in particular, I really think that diversity, inclusion, connection, community is really a part of the fabric of what Penn State is all about."
- Coquese Washington
Just one of the many roles Washington and the Lady Lions play in the community, Washington's impact also stretchers further, as she continues to foster diversity among teams, coaches and administrative staff at Penn State.
"When I think about diversity at Penn State and Penn State athletics in particular, I really think that diversity, inclusion, connection, community is really a part of the fabric of what Penn State is all about," Washington said. "It's one of the things that drew me here."
Looking back, one of most diverse experiences she has had at Penn State goes back to simply being welcomed as the fifth head coach in Penn State women's history. For Washington, she knew that coming to an institution like Penn State, she was going to be different in a variety of ways, from what the Nittany Lion community might be used to.
As Washington recounts, following in the footsteps of African American women who have already become head coaches was certainly inspiring, but the warm embrace she felt from the community really stood out.
"It doesn't matter what your color is, it doesn't matter what your religion is, it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is, if you're about making Penn State a welcoming place and you can add to the excellence that is Penn State, then you're going to be embraced," Washington said. "For me, that was such an empowering notion to grasp and to understand. At this place, not a lot of people look like me. I'm the first woman around here with dreadlocks, but it doesn't matter because I am Penn State, we are Penn State."
Washington's passion for blending coaching leadership with community impact and experience goes back much further than when she arrived at Penn State.
Rather, Washington's humility and commitment to community service stems from her parents, who were both factory workers in Flint, Michigan for General Motors and both members of the union. Washington's father was a union representative and her mother was an active member. From early experiences, she grew up with the knowledge of what it means to have a voice, how to use it and how to be a leader in an impactful way.
Alongside her role as Lady Lion basketball head coach, she serves as president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). In just one piece of a vast set of responsibilities, she uses her knowledge of what it takes to be an impactful leader to help coaches from across the country at all different levels face problems they may have with diversity.
"We have LGBT issues, and transgender issues are becoming more and more common place, and how do you navigate transgender issues on the playing field," Washington said. "There are a number of diversity issues that we have to deal with and just this year we put in place our diversity and inclusion working group within the WBCA to deal with these issues and to provide suggestions and information to our executive committee so we can handle these issues in the appropriate way."
As president of the WBCA, the experience has been enjoyable for Washington, especially accompanied by her former head coach Muffet McGraw. In her 30th season at the helm of the Notre Dame women's basketball program, McGraw serves on the executive board, and Washington, working with her long-time mentor and friend is amazing.
"She has such a wide perspective," Washington said. "She has been coaching and has seen a lot of things over the years of her coaching career so to have her perspective is invaluable to me in my role as president. To have her ear and for her to have my ear to say, 'Coquese maybe we should look at things this way,' I'm really privileged to be able to have this experience with her."
As Washington continues to lead the Lady Lions both on and off the court, she continues to represent Penn State as a role model and pioneer for African American women. Among accomplishments and tremendous impact, her message to those is a mixture of both connection and community.
Her belief, as Aristotle also thought, is that the sum is greater than the whole of its parts, which has resonated with her for many years. It is now that Washington is instilling this same mindset in the lives of young African American women.
"If I had any message to women of color, to women to students, to anybody at Penn State it is, find a way to be a blessing to somebody," Washington said. "If we can do that, then we can make Penn State stronger and stronger everyday."