Part-time professor and Monroe County commissioner, Julie Thomas, juggles a full life between serving her community and mentoring students.
Thomas began teaching gender studies at Indiana University Bloomington in 1997 but said lecturing 100 people in a large hall wasn’t very fun. So when an opening arose to work part time at Franklin College in 2016, she embraced the opportunity.
She said one of her favorite things about Franklin is how students grow comfortable participating in discussions and asking questions because of the small classes and how easy it is to form connections with professors.
Senior Abigail Larken said while women’s studies this semester is her first class with Thomas, she’s impressed by her teaching style and intentionality.
“I appreciate that the class is not just learning about the women’s suffrage movement, but she considers intersectionality between gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, race, etc,” Larken said. “Dr. Thomas is intentional about sharing with the class how things have changed over time and how things can continue to change and progress in the future.”
Sophomore Megan Brown said she admires Thomas’s attention to detail. Brown is glad to have Thomas for a second time this semester because she was instrumental in helping Brown adjust to college life her freshman year.
“She doesn’t just talk about the PowerPoint she puts on the screen she goes in-depth on everything and that helps me really understand the concept of what she is teaching,” she said. “Overall she is a really good teacher and I appreciate her teaching style.”
Larken said she’s been blown away by Thomas’s knowledge and meaningfulness in everything she teaches within the women studies course.
“I have felt super empowered by Dr. Thomas—empowered to learn, to understand better, and to make change happen,” she said.
Thomas said teaching at Franklin is a unique experience because of the community atmosphere on campus.
“There's just a different energy about it that I really appreciate. I really like the student body at Franklin because it's just a thoughtful inquisitive group of students that I've encountered,” Thomas said. “[They’re] really embracing that idea of the liberal arts education and really trying to understand the world around us at a deeper level. It's really exciting.”
While her Ph.D. is in history, Thomas said she has always enjoyed looking at social history, especially the role of women, since she herself has been an activist. She also volunteers with local organizations like the Middle Way House and Planned Parenthood.
“Just looking at how people have created change in the past, really inspires me to think about ways that we can create change in our communities today,” Thomas said.
Thomas’s friend noted that no women were running for city council in Wilmington, Indiana, so she started a local group that eventually became a political action committee to raise funds for women running for office. Thomas joined and helps the Women’s Democratic Caucus to recruit, support, and train women who are running for office.
“It suddenly dawned on me...I never saw myself as running for office, and then we were having these discussions about why women don't run.” Thomas said. “And so we were turning to each other, saying are you going to run and I was like, well yeah, I think I will.”
Joining the PAC posed the idea of running for office and made the goal attainable. She won her first campaign, for county council, in 2008.
Thomas thinks serving on the council made her a better county commissioner because she learned a lot about the budget and all of the departments. She ran in 2012 and won.
“I really wanted to be county commissioner, I love this whole job because it's legislative and executive, and it's working with a group,” Thomas said. “And it's, it's just an amazing community too.”
She said the county commissioners always have lots of projects going on since they are responsible for everything from the health departments to infrastructure to the county budget.
“We're coming up with new things and being proactive as well as being reactive, and that's it that's the balance,” Thomas said. “Don't let your fun project fall to the wayside just because something came up.”
Being a part-time professor at Franklin College and serving as a county commissioner in Monroe County, has Thomas spinning multiple disks simultaneously.
She said in both jobs, and in life in general, you have to be prepared for someone or something to add another plate to the mix.
“It's a balancing act in my life, it's about, what do you have to do, what you really should do. I’m somebody that's learned the great lesson of under-promise and over-deliver.”
She expanded on the idea by saying she’ll say she can have something done further in advance but try to have it done early, that way it’s okay if she didn’t get it done.
“I wouldn't say that I've perfected it and I don't know anybody that says I've got this down, because we always feel like we need more downtime,” Thomas said. “Don't expect too much and then be disappointed in yourself if you can't do it. But be realistic.”
Work Bearing Fruit
Thomas said she knows her work in public service and the classroom is for the future. In both jobs, you have to think of problems that may arise while working on the problems that have already been presented.
“A good analogy for what I get out of teaching, and being a county commissioner is planting seeds, you know, you always just think like 12 steps ahead,” she said. “What would make things better, and whether it's what can we talk about in class, versus you know what can we build or what can we create in the county.”
Thomas said the frustrating part is not knowing whether the seeds have taken root and will grow exponentially.
“I won't see necessarily the full fruition of things that we're doing now, in terms of projects. Sometimes I get lucky and I do get to see it and it's pretty cool,” Thomas said. “But it is about planting seeds and always thinking about the future, which is a hopeful endeavor.”
Thomas shared that she feels incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do the work she does.
“And I think that's what makes my life—I have such a good one,” she said. “I'm really fortunate to have the life I have because I'm able to be a county commissioner and teach and still be involved in the community all at the same time, and that to me is amazing.”