My name is Sharon Thomas and I'm the director of MAIA Education Resource Center. A place where families can come and get advice regarding their child's education. We provide tutoring school placement and workshops.
Tell us about your career journey.
Certainly the career journey wasn't where I necessarily thought I'd end, but it's been an exciting journey. And it started with my thinking that I would pursue a degree in child psychology, a Masters in Child Psychology, and then a PHD in Child Psychology. And when I finished my degree in Child Psychology, I was brought into the world of Learning Specialist by a school in New York City. And that's where I became very interested in general and special education for children. And through that work I saw that parents really needed a space to talk about their children, a space that was confidential and trustworthy. I developed an organization, MAIA Education Resource Center, with the mission of always keeping families and children at the forefront; really treating every person like they really matter and looking at what we could do to help them.
How has your background influenced your success?
I was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. My father was British, my mother is Brazilian, and my earliest recollections of growing up in Brazil were really magical. It was about being part of this big family that was rowdy and loud, and having a father that was very British and wanted things to be very calm and, as much as possible, silent. And that taught me to navigate differences that all times because the behavior expected for my father was so different than the behavior expected from my Brazilian family members. And I think that's where I really gained an appreciation for diversity and for really looking at why people think the way they think and why do they do the things that they do.
Having such a colorful background – Brazil is a very colorful country – gave me not only a second language, a different way to view human relationships, and the ability to notice and really stop and first observe, rather than simply jumping into something new without respecting what that was. So I very much take that experience and that background everywhere I go, and I think that’s been a huge asset in every situation both personal and professional that I’ve been in.
What are your top accomplishments?
I'm very proud of having started a company and I'm very proud of being financially independent. I am proud of it because I grew up watching some models of marriage that were complicated and I didn't want to depend in that way on a partner. I grew up not necessarily hearing that I was going to be able to achieve that level of financial independence, and I did it. For me that is the greatest freedom that I have in my life, to know that I'm capable of working and starting something. And if I choose to start something else I feel like I would be successful in it too.
Tell us about a time when the P.O.L.I.N.G.® principles played a part in your development.
So I could certainly say ‘Perseverance’ and not giving up. Making sure that the goals and passions are the things that keep the enthusiasm and hard work going. And also ‘Helping Others’ is very much part of the work that I do – that’s really the mission is to see the next generation be able to achieve things that they didn’t perhaps see for themselves. I work in the field of education, and most of our work is focused on helping students reach their fullest potential. And while that word gets thrown around a lot in the field of education – making sure that we’re maximizing on a student’s potential – it actually really does apply when students are underperforming and when we’re able to see what kinds of interventions we can put in place that will help them.
That very much resonates with my story and my background, which was one of struggle initially, in school. I was not seen as a good student by members of my school community nor my family. I think that because I had a mother who was so persistent in making sure that I would rise to challenges, I really rose above those challenges. And if I were to really think about the one significant experience that turned me around, it was in 5th grade when I studied the whole weekend to take a test on the Greek gods, and I swear to you that turned me around as a student. I passed this test, which was for me very difficult. It required memorizing many of the Greek gods and I think I got a 75 on that test and I felt incredibly proud. The teacher in that year recognized my effort and recognized there was more of me that could be drawn out. And through that, I really continued to put in the effort, take the time to prepare for things, and rose to be a real student in the school in 8th grade. And I recall some other teachers say, “My goodness, you really blossomed. You’re really a different student now.” So in my work, I very much get excited when I see a student walk through the door and maybe they don’t believe they can turn things around. And I see it before they can.
What challenges have you faced because of your background?
Certainly coming from another culture that is so different – different climate, different way people interact, different way people help or don't help each other – was enriching. It was also a challenge. Coming into a school environment in Princeton, New Jersey in the early ‘80’s from Sao Paulo Brazil was a particular challenge, because for the first time I really felt like nobody had any interest in me or where I was coming from. And I think that first I had to learn to assimilate very, very quickly and that entailed losing my British accent right away, because I was a child and I didn't want to feel singled out or bullied.
But what it did for me was really to have the strength to stand up when I saw that others were not being treated respectfully. And throughout my life, I tend to be the person in groups who people turn to for advice, or will turn to for help with assimilating members of the group if there is any kind of divide. With a name like Sharon Thomas, blonde and blue eyed, you wouldn’t suspect somebody coming to the U.S. would necessarily suffer the kinds of prejudice that I was suffering as a child. And because of that experience I can really understand what it feels like to be an outsider and not treated respectfully, and not having people wanting to share lockers with you because you’re from this weird country, this weird place. Being questioned in silly ways – did you ever drive a car, or were you driven to school, or did you take a boat – you know, the kind of questions that truly both feel offensive and also didn't make me want to necessarily push further in terms of the community and friendships. So I really get it when somebody feels like the outsider in a community and I think the way to dispel outside notions is by bringing people to the table to talk rather than saying to them ‘don’t say these things’ because it doesn’t really help make them feel closer to one another.
Who have been your strongest influences?
I have two women who very much influenced me. My grandmother was certainly a woman that I saw as a role model, and in also sharing a lot of the caretaking role, and my mother. And the way I look at them is actually quite different. I think they gave me different things. My grandmother was a very easy to love person in my life; she was steadfast, she was present, she made sure that my basic needs were met. And my mother was a woman of the world. She was really born to be in the world and not in the home. And growing up, that was a challenge. I definitely wanted a different kind of mother. She was demanding. She wanted me to succeed at all times, and she didn’t necessarily stop to look at what the success would take on my end – she just believed that it would happen and whatever she needed to do in terms of getting me extra support, she would do it. But there were very, very high expectations. And through that I learned to hold myself to a high standard, and I also learned that she was held to a very high standard to get to where she was. In many ways now, I understand as a grown up that she taught me invaluable skills. One of which is ‘perseverance’ – to never give up because that is truly one of the encapsulating qualities about her. So when I think about the level of trust that I have that I’m going to get up over and over and over again and go at it, it really comes from her.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self not to be so hard on herself. Not to beat herself over every misstep or perceived failure. I would tell my younger self to go out and have more joy, and more presence in the moment. I was an incredibly anxious child and an incredibly anxious teenager, and it really affected my college experience. And I wish it hadn’t. I wish I could have seen that things have a tendency to work themselves out. I don’t necessarily know whether that’s just something teenagers experience, period. Because sometimes I’ll tell a teenager, “Take it slower. Growing up, it takes one day at a time to do.” And I wish I heard that growing up.
What do you think about Inspiring Diversity’s mission?
I love Inspiring Diversity’s mission to have individuals who are coming together, who are successful or motivated, who have a very compelling story to share, but also have this shared vision of elevating others as much as possible. To achieve the kinds of things that is theirs to achieve. And I think in a community where so many people are confused about whether success means actually elbowing others out of the way instead of elevating others, is a very important message to give out.
How would you like to participate on the iD website?
I think about Inspiring Diversity and I think about the members that you are bringing into this community. I think that, very much so, they have been selected because there is something that they can offer. And also in that offering, there can be a good exchange. So I very much want to have others know that they can reach out to me if they have questions about education or questions about how to proceed with a situation with her child. By the same token, I would love to hear how it is that my education Resource Center can serve families better, year upon year. I really want to be around 50 years in. And so how to create this strategy of looking into the future and seeing what are the needs of families, and how are they evolving, and how do we provide even better services than we already do. I'm constantly up at night thinking how do we do this better, because that’s my tendency. I think that when it comes to kids, I want everybody to know that we truly are working towards the very best that we can for every child. That really is our mission. And I know that for parents, wealth can be measured in so many different ways. But really when children aren’t well, we feel like that bank account is empty regardless of what the sum is. So to my mind it really is about looking at this as a potential 360 partnership. It's about looking at success at work, success with family, and success with friendships, and how to create the 360-perspective so that we don't get stuck in just one thing.
What does ‘diversity’ mean to you?
‘Diversity’ to me is really about being able to come to a table with individuals who have different experiences, some of which may actually not be as different once we speak. And that could be based because of where they were raised, it could be based on their race, it could be based on their religious beliefs, it could be based on their opinions. You know, in many of the ideas and thoughts that I’ve heard about diversity at schools, it tends to have a certain bias towards thinking of diversity as ‘okay, now we're really talking about race’ – this is what we’re talking about when we are discussing diversity. But it’s so much broader than that. It could be social, economic, again it can be about having a different idea, a different vision. And I am a huge believer that the way we see our commonalities and can truly benefit each other is by talking it out as opposed to saying, ‘don't say this’, or ‘don't say that’, or ‘that's not appropriate.’ Because that to me just creates a culture of silence, and also a culture where there’s more opportunities for people to be having misconceptions and not really be able to see that we have many more shared goals than we previously believed. So ‘diversity’ to me is very much about diversity of color, diversity of professions, diversity of how we view having a family or not having a family, how we view politics, it’s all that. It really is more of an umbrella term.