Rhonda Thomas: Leap Forward Inc

SMBCC Regional Vice President S.T.E.M.

My story is the classic scenario of preparation meeting opportunity. I was prepared and inspired by others and I walked into opportunity.

I started LEAP Forward, Inc.

  • to facilitate the preparation of our youth – they need the tools to succeed.
  • to increase awareness of opportunities and open doors- they need to be exposed to more.

One day while walking down a hall in my high school, my counselor stopped me and asked if I was prepared for life after graduation. I replied “yes” and gleefully expressed my plans to attend college in Virginia and major in English with a concentration in Journalism. He asked what would I do with that degree and I replied, “teach English while I work on my journalism career”. He stated, “You know teachers don’t make much money.” That was in 1975 and yet sadly it still rings true today.

My counselor, Mr. Wallace Leeper continued and noted that I had completed numerous math and science classes. With my background he felt that perhaps I should consider an engineering career. He told me that there was an engineering affirmative action program that allowed minorities to attend college with financial assistance and maintain employment during the summer at a Navy facility. What really caught my attention was the fact that some of my friends were going to apply also. I trusted his judgment and we began the process.

It is ironic that I didn’t even know what an engineer was or what they really did. You see I had no role models and no one visited my high school to introduce me to this exciting career option. However my counselor was determined that I get into this cooperative education program. He marched me to his office and helped me to complete the application. He wrote the responses as I answered his questions. Mr. Leeper submitted the application and we waited. I was selected to be interviewed and in spite of a “D” in geometry, I was accepted into the program. My story is proof positive that a little direction and encouragement can go a long way. Just as I was helped – I want to help others.

I became the first African American woman to graduate from the PAX-TENN cooperative program and my career accomplishments have allowed me to progress from a Government service level 2 to 15. I have worked on major defense and aviation programs and have traveled to approximately 42 of the 50 states and internationally.

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