This N.J. Rhodes Scholar is going to Harvard AND Yale
His cellphone kept buzzing, so much so that Jordan Thomas set it to do not disturb.
Not just for that day last month. It was pretty much the entire week while he was mentoring high achieving male African-American college students at a summer fellowship program in Washington, D.C.
When Thomas, 22, had a moment, he was blown away that some 500 people had written to him on social media after his latest post climbed to 430,000 views on LinkedIn.
Thomas, a Princeton University graduate and the first Rhodes Scholar from Newark public schools, had been accepted to Yale Law School and Harvard Business School for a dual degree program.
“Everybody was reaching out saying, ‘omg, do you know what you just did,’” he said.
“One of my biggest strengths is that I’m crazy enough to try it,” Thomas said.
Earning a law degree and a Master of Business Administration degree is not uncommon since students have done it at one school. But pursuing both at two different schools – particularly of the Ivy league caliber – is fairly unique.
“It’s still not very common and probably not even very well known that this is a possibility,” said Bill Keyes, founder of the Institute For Responsible Citizenship, the summer fellowship program that Thomas was working with when his phone would not stop vibrating.
Keyes has known Thomas since high school. He was part of his program, becoming its fourth African- American Rhodes Scholar in 17 years out of 200 participants.
“I think this kind of program (dual degree) was tailor-made for somebody like him,” Keyes said. “He’s thinking at a very high level, even among the Rhodes Scholars and PhD’s that I work with.”
After four years — two at Yale, two at Harvard — Thomas will be on rare academic ground. As a Rhodes Scholar, he will have graduated from four of the best universities in the world – Oxford, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
Elliott Gerson, the American secretary to the Rhodes Trust in the United States, said there’s no way tell how many Scholars have degrees from multiple Ivy league schools.
“It would be unusual but I am sure not unprecedented for a Rhodes Scholar to have degrees from all four, as it is simply unusual for a Rhodes Scholar to get more than one other degree after Oxford, just as it is unusual for anyone to obtain more than two graduate or professional degrees for any reason.”
Thomas, however, is intentional. He’s doing it to give back to Newark, the city he loves and credits for all that he is.
“I still want to affect change and improve conditions in disadvantaged communities like Newark,” said Thomas, a University High School Class of 2014 graduate. “That mission hasn’t changed.”
After Oxford – he graduates in November – Thomas had it planned out. He would attend law school, come back to Newark, then hop in to politics to help Newark families.
He’d never thought about business as a tool for social good until meeting Ray Chambers, a Newark native and billionaire philanthropist who chairs the MCJ Amelior Foundation.
Chambers, impressed by Thomas’ commitment to the city, hired him as an intern last summer at the foundation, so he could experience various ways in which business makes a difference.
“You can’t truly serve others until you have fully cultivated yourself,” Thomas said.
It was a busy three months before Oxford. Thomas worked on the (ultimately unsuccessful) project to convince Amazon to relocate its headquarters to Newark. He wrote an opinion piece, too, and sat in meetings on how the city could attract investors. He became fascinated with tri-sector leadership, a concept that can “create social value” by working with the nonprofit community, government and business.
Whatever Thomas decides, Chambers is thrilled that he wants to do it in Newark. “That just warms me to hear that somebody not wanting to go off and do things globally, but to get these degrees, to have these accolades, and bring his cumulative knowledge back to our city,” Chambers said. “He is just so unique, so refreshing. His feet are firmly planted on the ground.”
His focus is laser-like, too. Next week, Thomas will turn in his Oxford thesis – effectiveness of comprehensive vs. abstinence only sex education in the United States. Before Yale and Harvard, Thomas said the best way to maximize those degrees is to spend the next two years working, so he’ll have a practical understanding of tri-sector leadership.
He’s taken a job with the GreenLight Fund, a national nonprofit organization that tackles social issues in distressed communities. The group is exploring the possibility of expanding into Newark, and Thomas is excited to be its representative until the end of the year. He’ll be looking for another opportunity afterward, perhaps in community development, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
Doors open for thoughtful, driven individuals like Jordan, who understands that he has a responsibility to inspire, empower and uplift.
“I am here because of people who took time out of their days and out of their lives and believed in me,” Thomas said. “I believe it’s important to give that back whenever I can and to pay it forward whenever I can.”
Especially to young people in Newark. They should never doubt their abilities. Neither should the 500 people who reached him on social media. He wrote back to everyone, telling them so. If you’d like to catch up to him, his Twitter and Instagram handle is @realafroscholar.
“No matter what path I take afterward, it’s always going to revolve around people,” Thomas said. “As long as I’m working with, for and in service of people and having impact, I will forever be happy in my life.”
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