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Long-time B-CU Educator Teaches From Experience

“I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour. More and more, Negroes are taking full advantage of hard-working for learning, and the educational level of the Negro population is at its highest point in history…If we continue in this trend, we will be able to rear increasing numbers of strong, purposeful men and women, equipped with vision, mental clarity, health, and education.” – Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Last Will and Testament

As one of the longest tenured – if not, the longest tenured – faculty member at Bethune-Cookman University, Ms. Joan Thompson is a living example of this sentiment written by our founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, more than six decades ago. For 47 years, like the B-CU professors who believed in her, Ms. Thompson has educated, encouraged and guided students as they discovered and aspired to become the best version of themselves while at B-CU.

Throughout her tenure at B-CU, Ms. Thompson has served as a counselor, academic advisor, dean of freshmen and sophomore students, and educator. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor/ Retention Specialist.

While B-CU is blessed to have a dedicated faculty in all academic areas that epitomizes the legacy of Dr. Bethune, Ms. Thompson is unique in that, like the students she has served, she found her footing at B-CU as a first-generation student and speaks from experience.

“I grew up in Miami,” Ms. Thompson said. “I was too poor to even see me even going to college. I was ward of the state of Florida. When I talk to students, I talk to them as something from experience. I know what it means to live in a crowded apartment. I know what it is to live hungry. I grew up in the projects. Most kids in the projects don't go to college.”

Ms. Thompson was born in Ft. Lauderdale, one of four children born to a single mother. When she was just two years old, her mother died. With her father absent in her life, Ms. Thompson’s grandmother took the children in and cared for them until it became too much for her. An aunt then took them in, and Ms. Thompson and her siblings became wards of the state.

Despite the challenges she faced growing up, Ms. Thompson excelled in school, taking advanced courses and excelling in Math. Her high school counselors encouraged her to take an active role in her education and to run for the Student Government Association (SGA). Reluctantly she did and was elected president. Shortly thereafter, one of her counselors began talking about college, namely a small, private university located in Daytona Beach. Even with the promise she showed in school, Ms. Thompson could imagine this poor girl whose primary caregiver worked in the laundry room of a hospital ever going to college.

But God had plans for her. With a promised scholarship, $20 in her pocket, and a suitcase filled with uniforms and necessities donated by her neighbors and friends, Ms. Thompson, barely 18 years old at the time, headed 260+ miles north to begin her college career at Bethune-Cookman University, with a desire to become a sociologist.

“I always wanted to be a social worker,” she said. “I was assigned a social worker since I was in first grade, second grade. I always said, If I go to college, I want to be a social worker, so I can help improve the system and work with children whose parents were bad or whatever and became wards of the state.”

Like many first-generation college students, especially in the early- to mid-1960s, Ms. Thompson initially encountered a few challenges.

“When I came to Bethune Cookman, the rules and regulations were so depressing to me. Freshman curfew was 6:30 p.m. I said, ‘What? I am from Miami. We are just getting started at 6:30’,” she said with a chuckle.

The 6:30 curfew was not the only obstacle in her way. During that time, B-CU had a rule that freshmen could not work. Because she did not have a family to support her and send her money for incidentals, Ms. Thompson broke that rule out of necessity, getting a job at Montgomery Wards, selling candy. When she broke curfew on her first night of the job, word got to the Dean of Women.

“I told her of my situation, and she suggested I run for president of the freshman dorm, which would give me rights to come in later,” Ms. Thompson said. “I was happy that they worked with me and helped me solve my problem.”

The following year, she met the Wesley family, who took her in. Mr. Wesley owned a local printing shop, and Mrs. Wesley was a school teacher.

“And from then on, I didn't have any problems. I lived with them. They kept pushing me to continue my education, and they opened my eyes to a lot of things that I had never expected,” Ms. Thompson said.

Ms. Thompson flourished at B-CU, ultimately earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1967. During this time, she also participated in fellowships at Yale University and Bryn Mawr. She continued her education, attending graduate school at Atlanta University, earning her master’s degree in education and her EdS (education specialist) in 1972.

She began her professional career in North Carolina, hired under Title 4 to work closely with the desegregation process. She worked with the Office of Civil Rights, training people and writing desegregation plans.

It was not long thereafter that one of her former professors at B-CU urged her to return to alma mater as an educator. Ms. Thompson joined the B-CU faculty in 1974, and as mentioned, has worked a myriad of positions serving the students on campus.

One of her most notable contributions to the university was the book she wrote, “How to Survive in College,” through a grant in 1986. Geared to students like her, the book is still used today as part of the freshmen seminar.

“What do you (the government) do with a kid when they turn 18? And they have no parents? Other than saying goodbye? You're on your own?” she questioned. “I felt, gee, the government didn’t really care that much. So, I wrote that whole scenario…if they come to college, then I’ll show them how they could succeed in college and move on, regardless of their past or their family situation. I owe my success to the people who believed in me.”

During her tenure at B-CU, as a student and faculty member, Ms. Thompson said she has truly seen Dr. Bethune’s legacy, as depicted in her last will and testament, lived out.

“She writes, I leave you a thirst for knowledge,” she said. “In this day and time, you have to have that thirst. I was eager to try everything. Even if I did not have the skills, I would tell them to give me time and I'll come back with the right way. That is what we need now. You can’t put a price on her last words.”

“At Bethune Cookman, it is the brain and the mind of the students that we try to touch. And our students understand that that is worth more than money can pay.”

We are so blessed to have Ms. Thompson and appreciate the passion and enthusiasm that she shares with our fine students.

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