There’s the student raised in a violent, drug-infested family who is now working on her degree in social work. Then there’s a student who once struggled and hated school, but became inspired to apply for medical school. Another teen lived on the streets, slept in public restrooms and had abusive parents. Now, he has an associate’s degree in business and is studying art media at the University of Wyoming.
The stories could go on.
“These students come from all over Wyoming. They can become positive and productive citizens. I believe that it is up to those of us who are able and ready to step up to the plate — to help those in need,” wrote Thomas in a recent letter.
After 36 years in the classroom and working with students who were at risk, Thomas has spent the past five years mentoring students and helping provide scholarships through the Craig and Susan Thomas Foundation. Her late husband, Craig Thomas, served more than 12 years as a U.S. senator before his death in 2007. Susan Thomas established the foundation in 2008.
Since then, the foundation has provided scholarships for up to 14 students each semester. But it isn’t just a scholarship. Students also participate in a mentoring program.
For Thomas, mentorship is just as important as the scholarship.
“It’s nice for them to know someone has their back — that’s my job,” Thomas said.
Thomas gives scholarship recipients her cell phone number, and they exchange texts, calls and emails. She has waited for students outside of class to touch base with them.
In the application for the program, Thomas tells students to only apply if they’re ready for individual mentoring.
“We don’t just send a check; I help you along the way. I strongly believe that you deserve a second chance, a ‘leg up,’ a real shot at your future. We can help you with that,” Thomas writes in the application form.
To qualify for the scholarship, students must be from Wyoming and attending a school or vocational program in the state. They also must not be receiving a Hathaway Scholarship already.
The scholarship is available to teens or nontraditional students with a high school diploma or GED, and preference is given to learners who are at risk.
Thomas defines at risk as “a longtime struggle that affects one’s life in and out of school.”
“I am talking about those students who have struggled for most of their lives with a dysfunctional family, learning issues, financial issues, social and emotional problems, foster homes, homelessness, drug and alcohol problems, legal issues — and the list goes on,” Thomas said.
Over the years, Thomas has watched as students enroll in college, pass their classes, graduate with a degree and succeed against the odds.
Thomas said her goal is to help students from around the state. One of the scholarship recipients is enrolled at Northwest College this semester.
“I want them from every single hamlet and town in Wyoming,” she said.
Thomas said she requires students to be honest, responsible and accountable.
She said Craig believed in those traits, and she does, too.
The late senator also valued leadership, and the foundation has a separate program that honors leaders in their communities. The $2,500 leadership award recognizes community leaders who support at-risk youth and help them achieve their goals.
Following her years in teaching and time with the foundation, Thomas can tell many stories of students whose lives were changed.
“Stories like that keep me going,” she said.