Rhodes Scholar Thomas ’18 emphasizes civic and interpersonal engagement| Nov 29, 2017
Jordan Thomas ’18 was one of 32 American students selected from a pool of over 2,500 applicants to receive a 2018 Rhodes Scholarship for postgraduate study at the University of Oxford.
According to a from the Rhodes Trust, Thomas will be joining approximately 100 students from around the world at Oxford. In the press release, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust Elliot Gerson noted that the foundation seeks “outstanding young men and women of intellect, character, leadership and commitment to service” who “‘esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim.’”
At the University of Oxford, Thomas plans to pursue a Master of Philosophy degree in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation. He is currently a Wilson School concentrator whose independent work focuses on poverty, inequality, and social mobility. He cites his experiences growing up in Newark, particularly his transition to a low-income, minority-based high school, as important inspiration for his academic focus.
“I saw so many people struggling. There were so many friends of mine who couldn’t go to the movies because they couldn’t afford a ticket or the Uber ride there,” said Thomas. “Seeing people who needed a lot of help out there — it really inspired me in a lot of ways to give back to my city.”
Thomas is also pursuing certificates in African-American Studies and Portuguese Language and Culture, two courses of study that are linked to his multicultural background and heritage.
“Growing up in two different worlds and interacting with people from both of them had a huge impact on me, because I saw so many different perspectives and ways of navigating this world,” he said.
These dual interests in civic and interpersonal engagement underpin much of what Thomas has accomplished at the University. He serves on the Community House Executive Board, the Office of International Programs Student Advisory Board, the U-Store Board of Trustees, and the Students for Education Reform Board, and he is also a fellow for the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and a Residential College Adviser in Rockefeller College.
“I want to have a positive impact on others in any way that I can,” said Thomas. “I think that I have this macro-mission in my life to ultimately… effect change on people’s living situations through law and policy, but I also have a micro-mission in just interacting with people on a day-to-day basis,” he explained. “My motto is, ‘If I can make one person’s day better, then my day is made infinitely better.’”
Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs Elizabeth Armstrong, who advised Thomas for his junior independent work and is now advising his senior thesis, described his upcoming project in an email as “truly the culmination of earlier course work, independent work, and experiences.”
“[Jordan’s thesis] brings together his longstanding interests in educational policy and educational equity, with newer interests in maternal and child health,” Armstrong wrote. She explained that Thomas interviewed college students about preconception health during junior fall and investigated prenatal care for women incarcerated on Rikers Island in his policy task force during junior spring. His thesis “explores programs for pregnant and parenting teens in Newark,” according to Armstrong.
Armstrong added that Thomas is drawing on the work he did while interning at the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights as one of six Princeton students chosen for the 2017 Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative. Thomas said that the internship, like his thesis, brought together multiple passions of his: in this case, it was education policy and civil rights.
“[The internship] gave me a chance to have lots of one-on-one interactions with individuals in the line of work that I see myself possibly pursuing in the future,” said Thomas. “I really received inspiration from working with these people who are so passionate about making a positive impact on other people’s lives through law and policy.”
When asked about the importance that he ascribed to education and education policy, Thomas responded with a quote from his father: “‘Remember, Jordan — they can take your house, they can take your car, they can take your job, but they can’t take your education away. If you work hard and get good grades, you can control your future.’”
Jordan said that his interest in education policy was just one component of a broader commitment to promoting equal opportunity and justice.
“I believe that education is a viable tool for social mobility, but at the same time, we see ways in which that has not necessarily manifested in society,” he added. “We see severe structural barriers and inequalities … If we can target those barriers and work to ensure that every student has equitable access and justice in education, we can ultimately get education back to serving that valuable role in society.”
Armstrong noted that Thomas consistently brings “genuine curiosity” and “a seriousness of purpose” to all of his endeavors. “Jordan always takes the deep dive — he’s very committed to understanding the social world, and he’s a serious scholar.”
True to this analysis, Thomas hopes to obtain a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree after finishing his studies at Oxford but emphasized his intention to avoid developing a narrow focus on law.
“I view law as a tool for having a fundamental effect on people’s social situations and lives,” Thomas said. “My ultimate interest is in combining legal advocacy with policy advocacy … [and] in arming myself with the policy evaluation tools that I can use to complement the legal education that I have and ultimately have a more profound societal impact.”
“It’s exciting to see [Jordan’s] potential recognized by the Rhodes Trust,” said Armstrong. “He is always looking for ways to make the world a better place, to amplify the advantages he has been given, and to help pave the way for others … I have long believed that he is going to make a big difference in the world.”
Thomas named his parents as his inspiration, saying that they taught him how to carry himself through life with concern for others, with “a constant bit of frustration” over the state of the world, and with a persistent desire to change things for the better. He also extended his gratitude to his entire network of family and friends.
“I couldn’t have gotten this far without my wonderful support base on campus and back at home,” Thomas said. “I’d just like to thank everybody who really helped me along the way, because they’ve all made this possible, and I can’t even begin to thank them all individually.”