Rhodia D. Thomas ’77: Using Law and Learning to Open Doors, for Herself and Others

With a feeling of privilege and emotion, Rhodia D. Thomas ’77 is set to collect the School of Education’s Tolley Medal during the 2024 One University awards on April 19, which celebrates the honorable work and dedicated service of outstanding members of the Syracuse University community. 

Thumbnail of Rhodia Thomas“I can’t understate what it means to me,” says Thomas, who followed her teaching degree with one in law to further her support of disadvantaged students. “I feel like I’ve really come full circle. All the training and education that I received in my undergraduate degree from the School of Education really launched my career, and now I get to teach the area of the law that I’m most interested in: education.”

Opening Doors

The Tolley Medal pays tribute to one of the nation’s pre-eminent leaders in higher education, William Pearson Tolley, and is presented annually to recognize those who also make education a career legacy.

All the training and education that I received in my undergraduate degree from the School of Education really launched my career.”

Thomas says she knows the exact moment she wanted to become a teacher and a lawyer. “It was at age 12, particularly due to my teacher, Mrs. Bracey,” she recalls. “She was a really great teacher, and I knew I wanted to be just like her.”

Since childhood, Thomas’s goal has been to give back: “My hope is to make the biggest impact by influencing people who didn’t have as much. I want to help give other people the opportunities I’ve had.”

Those opportunities center around education, which she firmly believes “opens doors.”

“Graduating high school opens the door to earn an undergraduate degree,” Thomas explains. With each next step, “doors get opened for you, and you have greater economic access.” But education is not just about finding a job, she notes. She believes earning higher degrees helped her pursue her passions. 

Thomas’s hope for all the students she works with is the same: help them see what doors their degree can open: “I haven’t lost that passion for the work that I do. The highlight for me is making a difference in people’s lives.”

Potential Power

Thomas currently serves as Executive Director of Mid-Penn Legal Services, a Pennsylvania non-profit, public interest law firm providing free civil legal services to low-income residents and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. 

She also teaches classes focused on education law as an adjunct professor at Widener Commonwealth (her alma mater) and Penn State Dickinson law schools.

Thomas credits Syracuse’s educational foundation for laying the groundwork for her joint career in law and teaching. “The training I received during my student teaching experience—paired with the coursework—helped me to be the type of adjunct professor that I am,” she says. “I love the law, and I love teaching.”

Reflecting on her years in the Salt City, Thomas recalls how her “fondest memory” is of the weather—“Everyone’s gonna think I’m crazy”—as well as Orange sports, and the University itself: “I enjoyed the professors, I enjoyed the classes, and I enjoyed the campus.”

After graduating from Syracuse, Thomas first worked with Head Start, an educational program that prepares children 3 to 5 years old to be ready for school. The initiative targets children in highest need and additionally supports their entire family as the child transitions into school. 

She next spent time teaching third grade, again receiving a front row seat to the challenges of her district’s most impoverished students. 

While teaching, Thomas attended law school in the evenings, completing Widener’s four-year evening program within three years. She was driven to earn her J.D., she says, to better the education system and address how schools are funded.

She knew there was only so much she could do as an educator, but as a lawyer, Thomas says she saw the potential power she could wield to ensure equitable access to education. “While I’m not in the schools anymore,” she observes, “I’m able to work with organizations to really try to make a difference in young people’s lives.”

Ideal Fit

The coronavirus pandemic focused Thomas on a particular equity issue: the digital divide. During the pandemic, she worked with an education taskforce to address concerns that underserved communities didn’t have the digital infrastructure required to learn from home.

“We ‘lost’ so many students during the COVID-19 pandemic because their parents didn’t have access to iPads or technology that so many were using,” Thomas explains, addressing what she saw happen during the required shelter-in-place mandate, when many students missed out on remote instruction due to poor or non-existent technology.

Thomas’ efforts helped to bridge the digital divide, granting students in need access with equipment issued by their schools. “Now, they have that access the way every other student whose family may have had the resources to provide that. All of the students have access, at least during the school year.”

“While I’m not in the schools anymore, I’m able to work with organizations to really try to make a difference in young people’s lives.”

Curious too about how other countries address educational equity, Thomas has traveled extensively, and during her travels, works in time to visit schools. 

“I’m always interested to see what the schooling is like because I want to learn,” Thomas says. “Areas that stick out, such as South Africa and the Dominican Republic, are striking because how disparities there can be, depending if you are living in one area or another.”

This curiosity made her an ideal fit to join SOE’s Study Abroad Committee, where she shares her experiences in support of the program’s focus, to expand international educational opportunities for SOE students interested in inclusion and equity.

“Life’s a learning experience,” she concludes. “And I think education is a door opener.”

By Ashley Kang ’04, G’11 (a proud alumna of the M.S. in Higher Education program)