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Poli Sci professor earns five degrees despite adversity

Colleen Huston

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Jerry ThomasCourtesy of UW Oshkosh

Jerry Thomas

A man of many accomplishments, professor Jerry Thomas of the UW Oshkosh political science department pursues a democratic and freely spoken approach to his lectures and hopes that his passion for diversity and inclusion will encourage further change both on campus and off.

An extensive academic career that spans five different degrees and areas of study was not an easy feat, particularly when facing a number of roadblocks, Thomas said.

“I grew up in the south, I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian background, I grew up very poor, I was born on welfare, my parents didn’t have a high school education, I have a learning disability, and I’m gay,” Thomas said. “I felt like coming out of the starting gate. I had a lot of strikes against me.”

Thomas said he wrote his way out of poverty and that by working in small increments on all he does has allowed him to achieve as much as he has.

“I’m just going to stick to it, focusing on one little piece today, this little piece this week and just keep chipping away at it one tiny piece at a time,” Thomas said. “I never set out and said ‘okay I’m going to have five degrees.’ It was hard, but you just have to keep chipping away at it.”

Thomas said he uses his background in his work because he recognizes how important these topics are to political science.

“It propels me and fuels me in my scholarship,” Thomas said. “The things that I research and I write about have to do with sexuality and gender and race and socioeconomic class. My favorite work are the ones where I am able to pull all of those things together and look at them collectively in politics and law.”

Political science professor Tracy Slagter said she watches Thomas work on issues of diversity all around campus, particularly ones that mean a lot to him.

“Jerry only throws himself into things that he really believes in,” Slagter said. “He’s very good at translating things he believes in personally into initiatives that he can work on for students and for the campus as a whole.”

Slagter said Thomas brings a lot to the UWO political science department, including a different voice to discussions within the department.

“Jerry is quirky, funny, critical and detail oriented — these are all great attributes for our department as they complement and enhance our other strengths,” Slagter said. “Additionally, he brings a fresh perspective to a lot of our discussions and certainly to our classes. He not only sees the world through the lens of someone trained in law but also as someone who is invested in different, non mainstream pedagogies and theories.”

With so much knowledge comes lengthy conversations Slagter said.

“A funny thing about Jerry is that he will pop his head into my office and ask ‘Do you have just five minutes?’ And that’s code for ‘Do you have 30-45 minutes?’” Slagter said. “Jerry doesn’t have short conversations. It makes me laugh when he pretends that he can.”

The ability to speak freely and at length is something that is very important both inside and out of the classroom, Thomas said.

“I am a strong advocate of free speech, especially on college campuses,” Thomas said. “I want to unleash my own speech. I want to unleash everybody’s speech, and that means even listening to people who have opinions different from mine.”

Thomas said his classes are built around being conversational and his style is very democratic and requires student involvement.

“I try to have conversations with students instead of me just standing up talking to them all the time, I try to enter a dialogue with them,” Thomas said. “I have to provide space for students to bring their own experiences and their conversations into the classroom, and I have to be flexible to kind of let the conversation go in different directions I don’t always imagine.”

UWO senior Jessica Dybul said sometimes it can seem as though professors are talking at students rather than to them, but professor Thomas’ teaching style is different from that.

“Dr. Thomas has a unique way of communication,” Dybul said. “He does not just stand there and talk at us, lecturing. He speaks to us. He interacts with us. He lectures in a way that draws student attention even if their major is not political science. In the classes I’ve had with him, I am genuinely interested in what he has to say.”

Dybul said Thomas takes the time to share his life experiences with his class, and by sharing these things he not only connects with students, but also brings a different view to the UWO campus.

“I think that many students can connect with these stories,” Dybul said. “One example is that he is a first generation college student, like myself and many other UWO students.Having multiple degrees, he has knowledge about how different disciplines view different issues, and he can share this knowledge with his students.”

Diversity and inclusion are political issues that ace our society today, and people must continue to interrogate these political issues and examine solutions for them, Thomas said.

“I want straight, white people to be more committed to diversity,” Thomas said. “It’s so easy to set it aside and think it’s somebody else’s job. It has to involve students, and we have to empower students to do things which means we have to give them the tools to use to affect change.”

Professor Thomas has served as an inspiration to LGBTQ+ students on campus and by him being open about his experiences. They can be open about their own, an unnamed student who chose to keep their name private said.

“I have not told many people about my sexuality and have always been afraid that people would see me differently or would not respect me,” the unnamed student said. “[Thomas] has showed me that I too can be successful and that being gay will not limit me in life or in my career. He has been a role model and an inspiration to me.”

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Independent Student Newspaper of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Poli Sci professor earns five degrees despite adversity