With her blue blazer, dark pants, and matching bracelets and earrings, Thomas projects a graceful professionalism, somewhat offset by her soft-voiced candor. She doesn't enjoy shopping for clothes, she confesses, happily accepting donations from her five older sisters, four of whom still live in their hometown, Chester, Pennsylvania.
Thomas "is able to empathize with the mission of CEW from a personal as well as professional point of view," says Hollenshead. The youngest of eight, Thomas witnessed her parents' struggles to make ends meet; her mother, a nurse's aide, "often worked double shifts." Encouraged by the federal Upward Bound program, Thomas was the first in the family to attend college.
Thomas's successes embody the hopes of the small group of U-M "faculty wives" who lobbied CEW into existence forty-eight years ago to support women returning to school after years of child rearing. The founders--who included Jean Campbell, CEW's first director--coaxed enough money from the university and donors to set up the first office and hire three part-time staffers.
Campbell, director for twenty years, greatly broadened CEW's scope. It now has sixteen full- and part-time employees, and its free career counseling draws about 1,000 clients a year, about 10 percent of them men. It offers scholarships to people returning to college and supports visiting scholars who study women's issues.