Alumni Spotlight: Brandon Thomas
“Arrupe launched my higher education journey and now I am supporting students as they navigate college. Arrupe never gave up on me, and I make the same promise to my students.”
Brandon Thomas (AA ’17, BA ’19, MEd ’23) remembers sitting in his grandparent’s car, in the summer of 2015, parked outside Arrupe College’s inaugural orientation. His heart was racing, his palms sweaty. A few months prior, he’d gained acceptance to Iowa Wesleyan University, but he’d declined to enroll because of the steep price. Arrupe seemed like an exciting (and realistic) alternative. Still, it carried risks. The school was just opening, for starters. And what if Brandon—sweet but shy—couldn’t fit in socially? Or what if he earned his associate’s degree but then lost academic momentum? “That was the number one concern for me,” he said. “If I would start this journey, am I going to stop after two years?”
Before Brandon unbuckled his seatbelt, his grandfather passed along a simple piece of advice: Be yourself. Brandon took it to heart. At Arrupe, he was “the go-to person” in his history classes, a subject he adores for its sweeping drama. He was quick to share tips about time and stress management that he picked up in high school, at Christ the King Jesuit College Prep on Chicago’s West Side. As Arrupe’s tutoring coordinator, he helped set appointments and monitor students who were falling behind. And in the corridors of Maguire Hall, he found a diverse community of classmates who “basically opened my eyes to things that are happening around me.”
His transition to Loyola University Chicago, where Brandon ultimately transferred, was not without its complications, either. Tuition was still a puzzle to solve; he coordinated with financial aid officers and department heads to set in place a reasonable payment plan. In the classroom, he adjusted to a demanding schedule and new expectations. But he’d learned at Arrupe how best to advocate for himself. “The more that you work at a thing, the more you’ll understand it,” he said. “That’s my philosophy.”
At Loyola, he served as a peer mentor for Brothers for Excellence, an organization that creates safe spaces for students of color to learn how to navigate a predominantly white college, and was active in the student-run Black Cultural Center. He also embraced the Department of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, where he could often be found diligently preparing for exams.
After Loyola, Brandon wasn’t initially sure what came next. When a mentor encouraged him to step outside of his comfort zone, Brandon started applying for jobs in higher education. The next thing he knew, Brandon landed a job at Marymount University in Arlington, VA as a resident hall coordinator and program assistant in the Office of Involvement and Inclusion. “I can remember sitting on the plane thinking ‘What did I get myself into?’” Brandon shared. But when he arrived, Brandon quickly found a home-away-from-home where he could help students solve problems and flourish in college.
While leading a training one day, Brandon realized he wanted to make a career out of his passion for empowering college students. He decided to apply to graduate school to study student affairs in higher education and decided to return to Loyola because of their Jesuit values and commitment to social justice. “I knew they would challenge me in all the right ways and continue to encourage me to step outside of my comfort zone.”
Since fall 2020, Brandon has been pursuing his master’s while also serving as a graduate assistant. He’s also working with the very first all-African-American live-in learning community of undergraduates, My Brother’s Keeper. “I encourage my students to see themselves as lifelong learners,” Brandon shared. Passing along advice from one of his favorite professors, Brandon challenges those around him to learn no matter what they’re doing, because through that there can be joy in a new beginning.
Guiding young people as they navigate college has become his life’s work. He recently joined the board of Christ the King Jesuit College Prep as the school’s first alumni trustee and is also a founding member of the Arrupe Alumni Advisory Board. Brandon found his way, and he is making sure others do, too.