Last Word

The permission I needed to say “yes”

How insightful encouragement unlocked opportunities to explore my passions.

by Whitney Thomas ’20

Whitney Thomas posing with her two siblings

Nazareth has kicked off a journey of growth for Whitney’s siblings as well as for her. From left: Whitney Thomas ’20 (public health and legal studies), Madison (Thomas) Harryman ’23 (nursing), and Andrew Thomas ’24 (nursing)

My experience at Nazareth is affectionately known as my “controlled stumble.”

I came into Nazareth thinking I was set on what I would do with the rest of my life; I was set on becoming a doctor, knew which medical school I would land at, and the experiences I would need to get there. I remember sitting in my first few weeks of biology and chemistry classes and quickly realizing that I was rarely doing anything but studying.

But this is what I had signed up for. What I thought I wanted. What was the next step on my path.

And yet, I felt that I wasn’t doing enough in the world. I wasn’t volunteering like I used to and was barely making time for clubs and activities around campus that I had been so excited about.

For me, this realization was a scary eye-opener.

After a quick cry in the basement bathrooms of Peckham came the moment of clarity that as long as I met the requirements for medical school, my major could really be anything. As I dried my tears, I quickly researched what majors I could jump into.

And there it was: public health.

So as any reasonable person does, I marched up to the office of Mary Dahl Maher, Ph.D. And by one of the best strokes of luck, she was there and had time to chat.

The public health program was brand-new at the time, with only a handful of first-year students. And there I was, spilling all my thoughts and feelings onto a woman who at the time was a complete stranger in what was the first of many rants about my future in Dr. Maher’s office.

In the middle of it all, she said, “College is a time to explore. You’re so young; this is the time to learn. You don’t have to have all the answers figured out now. I do know that this program is designed to prepare you for anything, including jobs that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

I distinctly remember those words clicking in my brain. She was completely right; I had spent so many years in pursuit of a goal that I hadn’t taken the time to really consider what else the world had to offer. With that guidance, I had the permission I needed to say yes to anything that seemed interesting. Anything that would let me help people. Anything that would help me learn more about others. My golden ticket into exploring.

Making that switch allowed me to adjust my class schedule and attend club meetings with the Lambda Association, Nazareth’s LGBTQ+ club. Through Lambda, I met some of my best friends on the planet, attended LGBTQ+ and trans health conferences all over the country, and learned from several of the world’s most caring experts and leaders in the fights for racial equity, trans rights, safe abortion care, immigrants’ rights, and more.

My newfound time to help others also opened up opportunities to go on Alt Break trips: one to Corpus Christi, Texas to assist with recovery efforts after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, and another to GMHC, a clinic in New York City helping to end the HIV epidemic by providing free or low-cost HIV testing, housing assistance, and free meal programs.

Granting myself permission to explore led to my spending more time making friends and learning about other disciplines. It allowed me the space to take a legal studies class and eventually double major in that program because I loved learning about the law, the history of the Supreme Court, and how our government has never treated everyone equally. It led me to meeting Noël Wolfe, Ph.D., and learning from her “Drugs in America” course how drug use has been criminalized for different groups of people throughout our nation’s history, and how criminalization is never a public health answer to addiction.

Dr. Maher’s encouragement also led me to study abroad in Ireland, an opportunity I would never have taken advantage of otherwise. The trip opened my eyes to how other people have navigated uprisings in other countries, and how deciding to fight against an oppressor is never an easy choice.

That led to a job in the Office of Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Education, and, thanks to an even larger stroke of luck and the work of former students, the launch of ATLAS, Nazareth’s LGBTQ+ Gender & Sexuality Resource Center. It certainly wasn’t easy, and my time there was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I’m thrilled that the space is still active and thriving today.

It also led to my meeting Jamie Fazio, learning about the storied connections to resistance in Nazareth’s history, and later going on the Civil Rights Journey, a trip that changed my life. I consider it divine timing that I went on this journey just a few months before the pandemic and the national reckoning of racial violence following the murder of George Floyd. Without that experience, I’m not sure I would have felt as empowered, and educated enough to speak out on the wrongs I was seeing across the country.

In the moment, stumbling into these experiences felt a bit like a controlled freefall. I simply leapt at opportunities that I cared about. Looking back now, I know the pieces were coming together as the world was guiding my life’s work.

The best thing that ever happened to me at Nazareth was having my beliefs challenged about what the world could and should look like. In this sense, I quickly came to learn that my life’s work would not feel complete in just a job, but in finding fulfillment that’s guided by my passions. This is the journey of a lifetime, and one that I’m proud to be on.

Whitney Thomas is the digital content strategist with the ACLU of Connecticut, a nonprofit organization working to defend, promote, and expand the civil rights and liberties of all people in Connecticut through litigation, community organizing and legislative advocacy, and civic education and engagement.