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Joel Thomas
photo by Tim Fitzgerald

A Creative Mind

by Beverly Newsam

When he arrived on campus several years ago, Joel Thomas was focused on completing his bachelor of general studies degree and graduating.  After discovering how much he enjoys writing, he is now bent on combining that drive with teaching.

"By the time I graduated in 2004, I knew I wanted to grow as a writer and teach writing too, so I started the master's program in 2005," Thomas said. "I realized that most of my favorite classes had been literature or creative writing, so I went with that."

During his undergraduate coursework, Thomas said he noticed he was becoming increasingly interested in creative nonfiction as a career path.  Thinking back, he said the signs were always there, but his passion did not make itself known until he got to UNO.

"Back in junior high, I was reading newspaper columnists like Dave Barry and Mike Royko for fun," he said.  "When I was attending a community college in Michigan, I never thought about going into the English field, even when I started writing a lot of rock journalism online."

Once he decided to delve into the creative nonfiction field, Thomas was delighted to have excellent resources so readily accessible.  "UNO's English department has a fantastic creative nonfiction ‘mini-department,' so to speak, that rivals those in other more-recognized schools," he said.  "What really interests me about the genre is that a writer can integrate any number of subjects and approaches in his/her own way and present those to an audience while still, essentially, telling the truth."

Thomas said the field of creative nonfiction is experiencing a lot of growth in the academic field, and he also wants to work on writing creative nonfiction criticism while he comes up with his own creative work.

As a graduate assistant at UNO, Thomas taught "English Composition" and worked in the UNO Writing Center.  The president of the English Graduates Organization (EGO), he spent many hours working to reinstate the program, which began in the 1990s and recently returned after a hiatus. The EGO aims to provide educational and social support for English graduate students by combining fun activities with workshops and sessions designed to assist graduate students and undergraduates with résumé building and networking.

"In the fall of 2005, Dr. Joan Latchaw, who had just become the graduate chair, approached me about restarting the group since I was the new Graduate Program Committee student representative," Thomas said.  "We've been going ever since."

Last academic year and this past summer, Thomas was active with the Metropolitan Community College (MCC) Writing Center on the college's South Omaha and Fort Omaha campuses.  Interacting in a diverse environment - which included students from Sudanese and Latino backgrounds, among others - was as much a learning experience for him as it was for those he worked with.

"Some of the things that many UNO students take for granted (for example: opportunities, education, financial security, safe neighborhoods and transportation) present a constant struggle for many of Metro's students, so often those of us who work in the Writing Centers and/or teach at these locations find ourselves hearing extraordinary stories and helping students navigate issues that many students never even have to think about," Thomas said.

A portion of Thomas' master's degree coursework includes research and writing on the relocation of the Potawatomi Native American Tribe and its life and success throughout the past century.  In addition, he is developing a collection of essays for publication that is centered on the idea of vocation and work.  

"The Potawatomi project has been special because I've presented part of it at a national conference," he said.  "What makes it more special, though, is that it's allowed me to converse with current Potawatomi leadership and start helping tell a story that needs to be told."

The $12,000 stipend accompanying his 2007-08 University of Nebraska Presidential Fellowship will enable Thomas to spend more time working on a variety of projects, and he hopes to visit a group of Potawatomi in Oklahoma.  Being named a fellowship recipient still is a surreal experience for him. 

"The UNO Graduate Studies Program sent me a letter in the mail," he said.  "I had to read it a couple extra times just to make sure I was reading it correctly."

Thomas, who grew up in Michigan and Indiana, is currently in the process of researching and applying to Ph.D. programs that will allow him to focus on creative nonfiction.  He said, although the field is growing and the opportunities are not as plentiful, the process is enjoyable. 

"My dream job would offer a great balance between teaching opportunities and writing time," he said.  "As long as I can teach fun classes, write and enjoy family time, I'll be happy."

Aside from his academic work, Thomas enjoys listening to a variety of music in his spare time.  An avid baseball fan, he roots for the Chicago Cubs and can also be found cheering on the Omaha Royals at Rosenblatt Stadium.

Besides Thomas, the list of University of Nebraska Presidential Fellowship recipients includes four Ph.D. students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and two at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.  Details on the other UNO recipient - Bill McCarty, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice - will be available in a future feature article.

Beverly Newsam is a public relations staff member at UNO.  She can be reached at bnewsam@mail.unomaha.edu.

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