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McMullan Award honors Thomas for leadership with compassion

By April Hunt | Emory Report | April 29, 2020

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Emory College senior Adesola Thomas, an English and political science double major, distinguished herself by engaging as a scholar and leader at nearly every level on campus — and by carving out space for others to do so, too.

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Emory College senior Adesola Thomas distinguished herself by engaging as a scholar and leader at nearly every level on campus — and by carving out space for others to do so, too. Those traits helped Thomas stand out among her many talented peers, earning her the highly selective McMullan Award for 2020.

The award, made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, recognizes Emory College graduates who show extraordinary promise for future leadership and rare potential for service to their community, the nation and the world. It also includes $25,000 to be used in any way Thomas chooses. 

Sometimes Thomas’ work to include others was concrete, such as when she became arts and entertainment editor at the Emory Wheel and took care to recruit underrepresented writers and showcase seldom-covered Emory arts events. Other times it was intangible, like the way she made room for opposing views in classroom discussions.

Always, it was about “being seen,” the phrase that the English and political science double major uses to describe how it feels to be in community with and witnessed by others.

With achievements including scholarly and volunteer work on campus as well as a digital filmmaking internship at Columbia University, Thomas is eyeing a future as a storyteller who ensures underrepresented communities are seen on screen. 

“It can be a supreme letdown to feel isolated when all you want to do is connect,” says Thomas, a Dean’s Achievement Scholar and one of this year’s Robert T. Jones Jr. Scholars. “I’m learning that is something we all feel at one time or another. Emory has taught me that art is a wonderful avenue to remind people they are seen.” 

“To know her is a gift,” says Chanel Craft Tanner, director of Emory’s Center for Women, where Thomas has worked since she was a sophomore. “Adesola will bring healing and light and joy into the world with her words and her presence.”

“Living in the hyphens”

Thomas’ words often center on community and belonging.

She long felt excluded from any group she might claim, a sense she describes as “living in the hyphens” of her identity. The child of parents who came from half Christian/half Muslim backgrounds and arrived in the U.S. before she was born, she felt not Nigerian enough for the Nigerian immigrant community in which she was raised, but too foreign for Americans.

The emotional divide persisted after her father, Adeyinka, died from heart complications. Her mother, Mobolaji, moved Thomas and her siblings — sister, Adetinpo, then in high school and brother, Ademola, who had just graduated from college — from Los Angeles to the small town of Hampton, Georgia, when she was 7.

There, Thomas further delved into her affinity for film and television. She found solace in favorites such as “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Holes” — stories whose characters did not resemble her or the idiosyncrasies of her community, yet still grappled with their personal iterations of the human experience.

Although screenwriting intrigued her, Thomas was reluctant to pursue the arts as a career. She committed to the academic excellence that would get her into a top-flight college on her way to law school. 

Emory was too close for consideration. Then she agreed to visit with her mom and found herself on a campus tour led by Chelsea Jackson, another African-American woman from metro Atlanta who was Emory’s 20th Rhodes Scholar in 2018.

“Here I am, walking on this beautiful campus, listening to this glittering black girl who had succeeded here,” Thomas says. “Suddenly, I could see myself at Emory.”

Being seen

Thomas made herself seen. She volunteered with Emory Reads, the literacy project with local schools, and Project Shine, an Emory engagement program with refugee, immigrant and new American communities. She started writing for the Emory Wheel while also producing and hosting “The Positive Planet,” an original show on WMRE.  

A few months after arriving, she approached the Center for Women about helping her host a screening and discussion of “Mean Girls.” Only three people came, but it set the stage for Tanner to hire Thomas as a program assistant. There, she regularly hosted free dinners for black women on campus and held film screenings that drew upwards of 50 people.

Her final project was continuing LunaFest, a national on-campus film festival dedicated to women filmmakers she first brought to campus last year. This year’s festival streamed online, with Thomas and the center live Tweeting the event.

She credits her confidence in herself and in her work to the female mentors she encountered at the center, on campus and in her family.

“She was so quiet when we first met, so humble, but I’ve learned there is so much power and maturity behind that,” Tanner says. “I always say that education will save the world. Adesola has shown me that the media is a tool to spark the conversations and make us think differently to get there.”

Creative intellect shines in the classroom

Thomas stood out in class as well. Even as a first-year student, she routinely asked questions that pushed conversations forward and made room for others to speak.

Often that curiosity itself was unique, says Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute.

Gillespie watched as Thomas more assuredly approached political science from an artistic bent, culminating with her research paper in Gillespie’s “New Black Political Leadership” seminar last fall.

Other students in the seminar wrote about race and elections. Thomas analyzed precinct-level data and demographics to understand the 2018 election of Mariah Parker, the University of Georgia graduate student who made national headlines taking her oath of office for the Athens-Clarke County Commission on a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

Thomas’ paper — finding Parker performed better in precincts with larger white populations and worse as the percentage of the black electorate grew — is expected to be sent for peer review soon. It has the potential to be published in a scholarly journal.

“I respect that she knows who she is as a creative person,” Gillespie says. “She is unapologetically smart and will ask a question because she’s curious, not because she thinks it’s ‘cool.’ She knows who she is.”

That self-knowledge took time to acquire. Thomas says a legal career initially seemed the logical way to merge her interest in people’s stories with her desire to help those not invited to the conversation. Then she realized that she could most effectively reckon with those issues through storytelling.

“There is such a need to reframe our stories, because too many people are left out of the narrative,” she says. “Think about the American story: hard work yields success. What about the people who try and try and never succeed? You have to tell their experiences as part of the overall story, because as a political act, it can change the entire narrative.”

That thoughtfulness alone wowed Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, an associate professor of English, when he first met Thomas during her junior year.

From class essays to her honors thesis exploring how politically tumultuous times inspired satire from 18th-century periodicals to “Saturday Night Live,” Thomas’ writing crystalized her ability to connect scholarly ideas to broader social questions. She received the English Department’s Johnston Fellowship to travel to London and New York for that research.

Thomas began to embrace the possibility of screenwriting during her semester abroad in London, where she spent evenings writing her first feature-length screenplay, “Gbenga.” It was later named a semifinalist for the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices competition in 2019.

Among more recent successes is the short film “Red,” which she completed with friends for Emory’s Campus Movie Fest. It won one of the festival’s Jury Awards, earning the filmmaking team — all women of color — an invitation to the prestigious 2020 Cannes Film Festival.

“Her ability and her willingness to engage intellectually in disparate cultural conversations is very special,” Suhr-Sytsma says. “She’s one of the only people I’ve ever taught who has the intellectual chops to go into nearly any field but could very well find herself making a difference as a writer on SNL.”

What’s next

Thomas hopes to celebrate her awards and graduation with her mother, who is at risk in the current pandemic. They haven’t seen each other since February.

Thomas asked for her McMullan Award to be sent to her mother as a thank you. She plans to also find a way to thank her sister, Adetinpo, who is a recurring character on the CW’s  “Black Lightning.”

While she decides between writing for TV or film, Thomas will pursue a master’s of literature in playwriting and screenwriting at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland as a Bobby Jones Scholar.

“This sudden truncation of my senior year has forced me to think about all of the things I did not do, what more I could have done,” Thomas says. “To win an award like this, which tells me that people saw what I did do, is incredibly affirming. I feel blessed knowing I will have the chance to tell stories dedicated to all the ways my community matters and what it means to belong.”