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Currents: outstanding effort

Always Teaching: Professor Bill Thomas

When you run into Professor Bill Thomas around town, it's only a matter of minutes before the conversation turns to how his students are doing and the latest adventures of the semester.

Perhaps no semester was as adventurous for him as the one he just spent as the accompanying faculty member to the Global Beginnings group in Strasbourg, France. Professor Thomas took with him an established reputation as a tough, excellent professor, which the Global Beginnings students were completely aware of, but for the four months that he was in Strasbourg, he went beyond his usual academic attentions and devoted his entire being to the academic, cultural and life educations of his students.

He lived in the same building as them, ate meals with them – even cooked for them on occasion – and stayed up late not only evaluating their work but thinking about them and communicating with those back on campus who could best help him solve issues that arose. The effort Professor Thomas expended in not only teaching but guiding every aspect of this group's experience as first-semester Colby-Sawyer students helps to illustrate his extraordinary dedication to and passion for teaching not just one subject but all that he has learned in life.

High expectations and accountability

Professor Thomas was clear with all the students in France that their primary purpose there was to be college students and do the work required. Enticing and distracting as their location may have been, it was never an excuse for a lighter work load or lower expectations. He repeatedly encouraged his students to balance their wanderlust by cultivating a love of learning and sense of appreciation for where they were – an historic chateau for the purpose of study abroad.

When necessary, students' work was returned to them for revision until their professor's expectations were met, which showed students exactly the quality of work that he required. One student remarked, “I have heard that Bill's the toughest professor at Colby-Sawyer, so if I can survive him, I know I'll make it in college.”

Intellectual curiosity across disciplines

Although he's a professor of Natural Sciences, specializing in biology, last fall he connected the theme of his Pathway – light – to everything around the students to the extent that more than one admitted the topic had become the prism through which they experienced their lives in France. Professor Thomas was able to teach the role of light in humanity not only as it related to science but also to Ancient Greek history and the way the nearby Smart car factory ran on light (lasers).

This interdisciplinary approach was made tangible with a visit to the Smart car factory, which went over incredibly well with students. They were excited about the topic and making all kinds of intellectual connections on their own, even talking about it at breakfast with students from other groups who were staying at the chateau. And, when Professor Thomas attended a conference in southern France, he brought back and shared photos of scenes at different times of day to illustrate the effects of light. His classes were lively and the students were engaged, answering questions and asking their own.

Sharing his love for another discipline – music, specifically the piano he loves to play at all hours of the day - Professor Thomas planned weekly cultural events for the students in France, including dance, symphony, opera and film opportunities, in an effort to encourage intellectual curiosity in the arts and to better understand French culture. Dependent on public transportation with a minimum round-trip time of one and one-half hours to pick up tickets in advance, this weekly endeavor was no small undertaking.

Inspiring students, encouraging cooperation

“My time is at your disposal,” Professor Thomas told the Global Beginnings students, and he meant it, and they knew that because they came to him. With his office/home just one floor below theirs, and on the way to the kitchen, no less, they came to him for academic assistance, of course, but also, with a variety of questions: how to plug in a washing machine, how to get a boyfriend to France from Italy, how to use BlackBoard, how to find the P drive, or make train reservations, or cook, or use their European mobile phones … things that Professor Thomas recognized as standard “college stuff,” but stuff he didn't usually have to address on a regular basis as a faculty member on campus.

Professor Thomas was never dismissive of any student's needs and often sacrificed sleep and whatever free time he had (there was never much of that) to address them. When students traveled he asked for a rough itinerary and offered pointers for their adventure. He would not have had as successful a semester if he were not capable of encouraging students to work and live in harmony – to cooperate. From extraordinarily tight quarters, the Global Beginners emerged an extraordinarily tight group.

One student commented just recently that by the time they left France, he had spent hours talking to Professor Thomas about all manner of things and that he had developed a great, deep respect for his professor. As for being inspirational, at least one Global Beginner decided to model his own life after Professor Thomas by becoming a teacher and learning to play piano.

A Legacy of Learning

Professor Thomas had a variety of students in his Global Beginnings group, and one in particular needed intensely individualized attention. The expectations for this student were no different from any other, and Bill got the results he expected. The student gained the confidence of knowing he was being treated equally and that he could, in fact, complete college work at a high level.

The value of the Global Beginnings program will keep emerging for the students for years to come, and unfortunately Professor Thomas may not hear about all the connections, large and small, that are made between the experience and their lives as they go on. Professor Bill Thomas shaped those students' Global Beginning to college with care and attention just as he has guided the hundreds that have gone before them that form his legacy.