If you think Dr. Mari Thomas is going to be just another principal… psych.
Dr. Thomas was born and raised in Delaware, Ohio, a small town just north of Columbus. She attended the only Catholic school in the area, where she says “most people just kind of stayed within their own comfort zone … a little different from Cincinnati in terms of breaking out and being exposed to a lot of different things.”
Dr. Thomas studied psychology at Bowling Green State University, which was where both of her siblings went as well. She knew that she wanted to study psychology after meeting a family-friend in high school with the job. Her main goal was to help students “become the best versions of themselves.” She knew then that psychology was her calling, but describes it as a gateway to opportunities rather than a job. “Problem solving with a student requires very careful listening to what the student wants and needs, and creative thinking to map out possible solutions. I try to employ these same skills in my role here at SUA. Listening to student voices, identifying needs, and clarifying hopes all lead towards a more acceptable and desirable student-centric outcome.”
She loves helping students through both good times and bad, one of which she remembers from her own experience in high school: “When I was growing up, we did not apply to a bazillion colleges!” She shudders, but then laughs. During her time at Bowling Green, Dr. Thomas had the opportunity to intern at a high school and fell in love with school psychology. That was when she moved to Cincinnati to do her masters work in psychology at the University of Cincinnati, which had one of the top three psychology training programs in the nation.
Thomas says that she really only had three major jobs before coming to Saint Ursula. Her first job began immediately after graduating from UC, and was at Saint Xavier high school as a school psychologist. In addition to this, though, she served as the Director of Enrollment Management (“an assistant-principal type job”) and was in charge of services for students with disabilities, diversity programming, professional development for faculty and staff, safety and security, and data management. “My role there paved the way for me to move from Saint Xavier to the Jesuit Secondary Education Association, which is the education arm for all of the Jesuit high schools throughout the US and Canada,” Thomas says. “And I was the vice president there for four years,” she modestly sneaks in. Her office in Washington, DC was only a few blocks from the White House. Through the Jesuit Secondary Education Association, Thomas recalls learning about not only the Jesuit school model, but also the Cristo Rey and Nativity models. “It was really a very amazing experience … but I traveled a lot,” she says. With her kids preparing for middle school, Dr. Thomas decided that she wanted something new, that required less moving around. She was given the opportunity to help build programming at Mercy-McAuley, and while she “found that to be interesting work, [she] found the call to work with students at Saint Ursula more appealing.” Thomas wanted to move back to the student-life part of working in schools since she had focused so much on the faculty piece by this time in her career. “I felt like I needed to come back to that point,” she says of her beginnings in student-directed activities and programming.
That’s exactly what Thomas did when she made the switch to SUA this past school year. She currently works with Admissions, the Mission and Ministry Team, the Advisory program, grade level student council, and student body student council. Next year, she says her shift “will really be providing more direct support and oversight to faculty.” She will work more closely with Ms. Meyer in terms of institutional programming, but her “movement will be back to faculty again, and instruction, and all of that good stuff.” Dr. Thomas says that while this year, a lot of her work is outside of the classroom, “next year it will be inside the classroom.”
“I’m very much looking forward to regular opportunities to hear what the teachers are really most proud of and what they love to do with all of you [students] in the classroom,” Dr. Thomas says. Another thing: “We have been really thoughtful about student programming that’s working and student programming that’s not working, and next year we’re going to make some tweaks.” Is she currently allowed to talk about them? “Not just yet … but stay tuned!”
While Dr. Thomas is excited about the changes to student programming, she’s most anxious about morning prayer. “I think you all have grown to appreciate Mr. Maliborski’s everyday routine … just keeping it real and keeping it relevant and timely. I think that, because it speaks to you, you all look forward to it, and so, as we make this transition, I think that how the day gets started next year will be really important for all of you … and it creates a lot of angst for me.” She plans on brainstorming with future student body presidents Anna Scott ‘19 and Maggie Sullivan ‘19 as soon as possible.
In fact, Dr. Thomas says that the students’ passion is what motivates her. “I think that you all come into school every day really excited to be here, and that is very energizing. And then you couple it with the energy, excitement, passion that all of the adults have here -- everyone from the classroom teachers to Ms. Margaret [our beloved crossing guard]!” She loves the fact that everyone in the community is always eager to be there.
A few people in the SUA community that have particularly inspired her include Ms. Meyer and Mr. Maliborski. “They had a tremendous impact on me when we worked together and Saint Xavier, and I think they really helped me to be a good educator.” She also mentions Principal Dave Mueller at St. X in her list of most impactful mentors, as well as colleagues she met through the Jesuit network. She says that, without them, she “would have wrestled a little bit more with wanting to do so much, and not really knowing how it comes to life.”
In speaking of her transition from an all-boys school to an all-girls school, Dr. Thomas acknowledges the biggest differences. As a woman, she says that it can be difficult to be in a place of value within an all-boys school. “There are stereotypes and boundaries that are challenging for us. [...] If you aren’t explicitly aware, you’re implicitly aware of the ceilings and the boxes that you live within,” she says. In an all-girls environment, however, Dr. Thomas finds a different sense of empowerment, which she finds very positive, but also very intimidating. She says that it’s a constant reminder to make sure that her words and actions match, so as to serve as the best role model she can be for “the people who see themselves growing and creating goals for themselves based upon women in their life.” Thomas says that, through SUA, she believes that she’s learned to embrace her imperfections, despite her prior constant worry about confidence and perfection. The school “challenges her to be a more reflective thinker, intentional servant leader, gentle nurturer, and wise prophet.”
Dr. Thomas thinks that the most significant learning that she’s had in all of her jobs as well as her job at SUA is this: “Being in relationship with people makes the most difference. Knowing their names, knowing what they’re like … just being in relationship on more of a personal level rather than a superficial level.” Thomas hopes that she carries this quality out -- she aims to value other people’s opinions, and she loves to be collaborative. “I like to really bring others into the conversation in a way that ensures that I am attentive to what people value, what people find important, and what people believe will help move an institution forward,” she says. “I want people to know I’m approachable!”
Dr. Mari Thomas’s official start date as principal is July 1, 2018. Before she begins, she wants students to know this as well: “Be brave. Find your voice. Ask those questions. Don’t miss those opportunities because your voice really matters!”