By Grant Catuna, Currier Times Staff///
“We went to a cultural village in Mombasa, Kenya and this young man was our tour guide,” said Curry Vice President and Interim Chief Diversity Officer, Carole Copeland Thomas when recalling a vacation she and her friends took in 2005.
“And so, I started asking him questions about where he lived and his family. He seemed to be pretty perky and pretty bright. He spoke a couple of languages. And then I asked the ultimate question: ‘Where are you in school?’… He looked at me very transparently and said ‘I’m not in high school because in our area there’s school fees for certain grades so if your parents can’t afford the school fees, you have to go to work.’”
That young man was 17-year-old Naftal Kiombo Mwangé, a Kenyan boy left with no choice but to work as a tour guide in Mombasa. Upon hearing that the price to put Naftal through high school was a couple hundred dollars, Thomas had a visceral reaction.
“ Now , I have responsibilities here and I had kids who had just gotten out of college and lots of things were going on in my area but instinctively I just said, ‘Well, I’ll put you through high school.’ and he looked at me, he was shocked.” The two went on to exchange email addresses but it didn’t stop there. “I got back on the bus and told my friends what I was doing and one friend stepped up immediately and said ‘I’ll help you’. We literally put him through high school… This young man now builds affordable housing in Mombasa.”
Thomas’ vacation-turned-humanitarian project led to the founding of “The Kenya Sisters”, a non-profit organization that consisted of Thomas and nine other women that were also on the trip. For the next five years following the initial trip, the group “raised and sent money back to not only Naftal but other people [and] supported a lot of kids in the area.”
This is just one example of Thomas’ work as a humanitarian, but many also know her work as a speaker, author, consultant, business-owner, and an advocate for worldwide equity, inclusion, and empowerment. As of the Fall 2022 semester, Thomas has also taken on the responsibility of Vice President & Interim Chief Diversity Officer at Curry College.
Thomas made her first appearance to Curry Students during the school’s campus-wide zoom session that took place this past February following a series of hate crimes that took place on campus. Following the session, she was invited by President Quigley to join the school in her current role which entails the complete reimagination and redesign of the Chief Diversity Officer position at Curry. This program will ultimately be turned over to the permanent CDO.
“I’ve been in this field for 35 years, I’ve been in academia in the past with a couple of other institutions… so my job is to structure this position so that it effectively monitors the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging activities across campus.”
Thomas also expressed her gratitude to Jeannette Buntin, Assistant Vice President of Student Engagement and Diversity at Curry.
“She was the one who invited me to speak in February, and one thing led to another and that’s why I’m here,” Thomas explained.
Thomas went on to reference the hate crimes that took place throughout the 2021-22 academic year saying, “That is something we must continue to acknowledge. Even though I was not here, I must acknowledge that.” Thomas references the fear that students faced on campus but more importantly explains how it is a means to move forward. “Part of my job is to help students understand how they can face those kinds of incidents, learn from it, and help other students to also learn accordingly.”
This is a sentiment highly present in Thomas’ Ted Talk, “Facing fear is an opportunity for growth”. In this Ted Talk, Thomas details deeply personal experiences from going through a divorce to losing a son.
“You will be given what you need to move forward,” said Thomas explaining her experiences with fear. “ But, it’s not only that. Once you get through an experience, it’s not for you to keep, it’s for you to help other people to get through their experiences.”
Thomas also has an on-going speaker series on campus titled “Ask The CDO”. These monthly sessions are a time for students and faculty to meet Thomas and learn about diversity, equity, and inclusion. “I want more students there,” said Thomas. “I’m used to other campuses where people are coming at me, asking me questions. That’s what I want to have from our students here at Curry because that will then carry over into their lives and they’ll be critical thinkers when they get off campus.”
With that being said, the next installment of the “Ask The CDO” series will be held on January 31st at Noon in the Large Meeting Room in the Student Center. The series will continue on February 23rd at 1 p.m. in Levin Library, and March 29th at Noon in the Large Meeting Room at the Student Center. In these sessions, Thomas will discuss student/civic engagement and its importance on all college campuses.
Thomas ended the interview with a personal story detailing her experience as a student at Emory University in the early 1970s.
“The black students got together and we were a pretty strong force on campus,” she said. She and her group of friends would often go to the park in Stone Mountain, Georgia for picnics. “It may not mean much to people now but I hear the name and immediately go back to that time because we had fun at the park during the day, but we had to leave by dusk because the Ku Klux Klan would have their rallies at dusk… So you knew your boundaries and you had to make sure you followed those boundaries because you didn’t want any harm to come to yourself.”
Thomas went on to explain that despite the blatant acts of hate, student activities and movements led to massive changes in Georgia which can be seen today as Raphael Warnock recently won re-election for one of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. Senate.
“It was the activities and movements of students and things that students would do in a bold and courageous way that led us to where we are today. That’s what I want Curry students to remember, that what I had to face, they don’t have to face… we did it so that we could open up the doors so that students today could experience a much brighter
opportunity than they could 50 years ago.”