Mansfield University senior Sharon Thomas isn’t exactly sure what career path she wants to follow. But she does want to advance towards the arena of human rights.
Now, with a recent prestigious appointment, she appears headed in that direction.
Thomas was recently named student commissioner of Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell’s Advisory Commission on African American Affairs (GACAAA), which seeks to increase the Black community’s access to government resources and opportunities in Pennsylvania. The commission consists of 13 members, including Thomas as well as Dr. Larry Davis, the dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.
“It is very important to include the student voice in the commission’s dialogue about issues affecting the African-American community,” says Sonya Toler, the commission’s executive director. “Sharon will do an excellent job of providing insight into how issues affect Pennsylvania’s young African-American men and women, and she will help further the commission’s mission in new and exciting ways.”
The GACAA has not had a student commissioner in approximately 10 years. The magnitude of being appointed to such a prominent position still has not hit Thomas, and she says she hopes that it doesn’t.
“If you are going to serve to the best of your ability and to your capacity, then I think you need to be humble,” Thomas says. “You need to step back and say this isn’t for me, this is for the greater good or for whatever person or group that I am going to help. There is so much that we should be doing for each other.”
At Mansfield, Thomas has actively involved herself in several mentoring and leadership programs, including the university’s Mountaineer Leadership Program. In 2004, Thomas was named a Board of Governors Scholar, and last April she was honored with the David H. Russell: Exemplary Leadership & Service Award.
“We really liked her leadership abilities,” Toler says. “And that is something that we were desperately looking for in our student commissioner. She is someone who just seems to be a natural leader. Being on the campus and talking to students who know her, they all speak highly of her.”
Her family probably speaks highly of her too. Thomas, whose father is Black and mother is White, is a first-generation college student who has nine sisters and a brother. Growing up in such a large family has made her a little more “open-minded about issues people are dealing with,” says the Harrisburg, Pa., native.
However, Thomas’ term as student commissioner may expire when she graduates this May with a bachelor’s in communications from Mansfield University, a public liberal arts college in Mansfield, a town in north-central Pennsylvania. If Thomas chooses to attend a graduate program at a Pennsylvania college or university, then her term will be extended.
“Grad school is definitely in the plans,” she says. “I am just not sure whether it’s going to be right away or in a year or two.”
Thomas is looking into West Chester University’s communication studies graduate program. And she is going to take the rest of the semester to decide which route — graduate school now or later — would keep her on course towards her passionate pursuit of human rights, she says.
Thomas is most concerned with promoting the human rights of women and youth.
“I think we tend to overlook the people who don’t have the voice or who aren’t as educated and prepared to stand up for themselves,” she says. “We need to empower youth more. And that way we won’t have as many issues as we do have as far as crime and teenage pregnancy.
“We also need to treat all people fairly,” she adds. “With women, the issue should not be: Are they equal? It should be: Are they being treated equally?”
Her unwavering belief that every person deserves to be treated fairly and equally is what has motivated her to pursue human rights. And, just as she’s going to be the voice of Black students on the commission, she plans to make a career out of being the voice of people in need.
“Some people who aren’t being treated fairly or equally may not have the voice, may not have the right resources or know the right people that can help them,” Thomas says. “I think being in human rights I can help to address some of those issues, help to be the voice for people who may not feel that they have one.”
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