The combination of working in mental health facilities, jails and public schools laid the groundwork for Dr. Cynthia Thomas to teach psychology at the college level. Returning to Louisiana to ply that craft at LSUA was the icing on the king cake.
"One of my goals is to make sure that people are trained and that they have the skill set they need to do the work they are setting out to do," she said. "I was also pretty excited to come back home."
Thomas is originally from Opelousas, Louisiana. In 2011, she landed her first full-time teaching job at LSUA, where she is now an associate professor of psychology. She teaches several courses, including Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Personality Psychology, in the online psychology degree programs. Thomas initially had a far different career path in mind.
"After watching a show on TV, I decided I wanted to be a social worker," she said. "I realized very early on that I was not a social worker. There's a different philosophy in social work, so I went with psychology instead. I have wanted to do that ever since. I wanted to give people tools that they need or maybe tools that they never developed so that they can move forward and be successful in life."
Thomas earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Southern University in 1995. After moving to Maryland, where her sister lived, Thomas added a master's degree in guidance and counseling from Bowie State University in 2003. She and her husband, Curby, had their first child, Isaiah, that same year. Two years later, they had their second child, Sydnei.
"My plan was to do the master's degree, stop to have two kids, go back and get my Ph.D. and not go to work while in school," Thomas said. "That plan was flawed in so many ways. When you work, you get time off. When you're mom, you're never off."
Still, Thomas graduated with a Ph.D. in personality psychology and developmental psychology from Howard University in 2010. She also taught adjunct, planting the seeds for her new career.
"When I was working on my Ph.D., it was a lot," she said. "I don't recommend that plan to anybody, but you do what you have to. It was difficult being a mom, a wife and a Ph.D. student."
Thomas started her psychology career training at patient psychiatric facilities for two years.
"That's something I recommend to everybody because you get to see all of the different disorders you are learning about in school and how they work," she said. "It's the best boot camp that you can get."
From there, Thomas moved again and went into behavior modification using behavior analysis techniques working with families and school systems at Metrocare Services in Dallas.
"As I got older and started planning, my thinking was, 'Why don't I help people to stay where they are so they don't end up in the hospital?'" she said. "I would go to schools or jobs — wherever the patient was — and help them to modify their behavior so they could have success where they were."
Thomas then relocated to the Washington, D.C., area and did the same job with juveniles who were at risk while also working extensively with HIV-positive jail inmates.
"It was very demanding, but I really felt like I was helping people," she said. "I did that for about five years."
Since her master's degree included school counseling, Thomas switched jobs in order to have less demanding hours and the same schedule as her children. She spent one year as a high school guidance counselor and another year as a middle school guidance counselor.
"I realized I didn't like working in the school system, and it had a lot to do with my training," she said. "Working in the jails, they say, 'Here are the rules. You need to follow the rules. Employing the rules consistently keeps everybody safe. Everybody knows the rules. You're not going to let this inmate have certain privileges that this one doesn't have because that creates safety issues for everybody or they'll fight.'
"In the schools, however, it was, 'Here are the rules. These kids don't have to follow the rules, but these kids do. These kids have to follow them loosely. They might be penalized, but it won't be as severely as this group of kids. It was a lot of inconsistency that drove me up the wall. It contributes to a lot of the discipline issues that are inherent in the school system — nobody knows what the rules are because they are not applied consistently."
It also drove Thomas back to college to earn a doctoral degree.
"I intended to earn a Ph.D. anyway," she said. "That put fuel to the fire. I got the Ph.D. so I could teach on the college level but also have the benefit of a flexible schedule so I could be available to my kids."
Thomas had to change with the times when LSUA dove head-first into online education. In fact, she took a year-and-a-half off to learn to teach online courses.
"I had not taken an online class during my training," she said. "I thought you just lift the face-to-face class and go into the virtual world. I have since learned that is not true. There are a number of things that I have learned online that I implement in my face-to-face class."
Although Thomas is now comfortable teaching online courses, she still loves classroom interaction.
"I set out to be a teacher, and I love to interact with people," she said. "My preference is face-to-face, but I needed to make sure I was training students online because that's important. I had to figure out how to make the assignments meaningful."
One way Thomas bridges the gap for online students is The Quad, a forum she created. Other than stepping in to clarify any misinformation, she leaves the interaction in the forum to the students.
"If the students have questions, they can ask them in Quad," she said. "If they need clarity on an assignment, they can go there. If they want to know when something is due, they can go there. If they want to know, 'What do you think the professor meant?' they can go there for clarification. They're not just talking to — they're actually talking to each other and getting to know and support each other."
Now that Thomas has firmly established her teaching career, she looks forward to preparing many more future psychologists, spending quality time with her family and enjoying home, sweet home.
"I was looking forward to raising kids around family and having a slower pace than in Maryland and D.C.," she said. "I like living in Louisiana. Teaching online gives me flexibility, and I am also very passionate about making sure students have a good foundation."
Learn more about the LSUA online Psychology programs.
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