Graduate student receives one of CSU's top honors

Raised in a family torn apart by substance abuse and crime, Marilyn Thomas was homeless at 15, a high school dropout soon after and a single mother at 20. But she prefers to focus on present triumphs, not past obstacles.

A photo of SF State student Marilyn Thomas.

SF State student Marilyn Thomas has been selected as the Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Razi Scholar for 2012.

After being given one of the California State University's highest student honors, that won't be difficult.

On Wednesday, Thomas, a second-year master's in public health student, was named the Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Razi Scholar for 2012, an honor given to the top-scoring recipient of the William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees' Award for Outstanding Achievement. Twenty-three students, representing each CSU campus, are selected as Hearst Scholars. Thomas is the first SF State student to be named the Razi Scholar.

"It feels similar to what you may feel if you make it to the Olympics, and then actually win the gold medal," she said. "It's a surreal honor."

The hood recipient for the College of Science and Engineering and student Commencement speaker when she received her bachelor's degree in biology in 2010, Thomas has spent years dedicating herself to the field of public health, focusing on underrepresented populations. As an undergraduate, she was a volunteer leader of an after-school science class for girls of color at San Francisco's Mission High School, which sparked a desire to give back to the community.

"Once I got there and understood the substandard education these girls had received, and their misperception of the potential success they could have in higher ed, that was it," Thomas said. "I thought, 'This has to change.'"

With a desire to reduce social inequity and health disparities, Thomas returned to SF State to earn her master’s in public health. She currently works with SF State's Metro Academies program as the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) coordinator. Metro Academies focuses on retaining and graduating underrepresented, low-income and first-generation college students. Thomas developed the program's STEM curriculum, which she is now implementing in the classroom.

One of the biggest impacts of Thomas' achievements, she said, has been on her son, who has started an organic shoe-cleaning business with his friends and won second place in a business-plan writing competition for young entrepreneurs.

"He's 17, a senior in high school, and he's just gained a lot of confidence," Thomas said. "I think that all of the honors and achievements that I have been blessed with have really influenced his drive and ambition."

The Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Razi Scholar award is named after Ali C. Razi, a member of the CSU Board of Trustees from 1996-2001, and a businessman and philanthropist. Thomas will receive $10,000 as part of being named the Razi Scholar. The CSU Board of Trustees will recognize Thomas and her fellow Hearst Scholars at its Sept. 18 meeting.

Thomas will graduate with her master's degree this spring and is considering graduate programs in either epidemiology or public health.

"To be successful and have a sense of achievement, whatever you have faced, you can use what you have faced as an asset to make yourself and your community better, that's the success," she said.

Despite all she has accomplished, Thomas is still coming to terms with seeing her story as remarkable and looks to a day when someone overcoming a difficult background to attain success is not seen as extraordinary.

"Achievement is not about the obstacles you have overcome, it's what you choose to do with your life despite that," Thomas said. "It doesn't have to be a sad story."

-- Jonathan Morales