Two portals

Sociologist Jan Thomas sends her students beyond the classroom walls

Some sociology professors come at the world through the portals of theory. For Jan Thomas, it was the other way around. She entered academia world-first.

Thomas, an associate professor who currently chairs the department, started out as a social worker, running health education programs and directing women's health-care centers. If she traded all that for the seminar room and the footnoted article, she's still very much at home out where real people face real problems in the meshwork of society.

Take her recent sabbatical-year research in Sweden, where she studied maternity care not only by reviewing data but also by gathering it first-hand, spending time with midwives in prenatal clinics and delivery rooms, and seeking out new mothers in playgrounds, parks, and stroller-friendly coffeehouses.

And consider her teaching, which sometimes incorporates site visits or service-learning. In her "Health and Illness" course, students put theories to the test by observing and interviewing doctors or other health-care providers. In "Social Movements," they work for two to three hours a week with agencies like Head Start or the Moundbuilders counseling center, to study how social change takes place at the micro-level.

"Students learn better when they are not learning in a vacuum," says Thomas, who carefully ties these off-campus experiences to class assignments. "It's a part of what I've always liked about sociology. It's a way to understand the social world, the world we live in."

Academic life was familiar to Thomas growing up. Her father was a history professor, her mother a piano teacher, and Thomas spent her childhood in Princeton, New Jersey, and Mount Vernon, Iowa, where her father taught at Cornell College. But Thomas knew as a teenager that she wanted to be a social worker, and when she went to Cornell College as a student, her advisor steered her to one of the country's premier graduate programs in the field, at the University of Chicago.

An interest in women's issues led her to a women's health center where she worked part-time during grad school, handling the center's education program. "I was twenty-three years old, and my first project was running a menopause self-help group!" Thomas laughs. That job led to a series of similar positions, both in Chicago and in Denver, Colorado, where she moved with her husband-to-be, Gary Doernhoefer, in 1983.

It was in the Denver area that academia drew her in. As an educator for a county health department, Thomas gave a talk to a women's studies class at the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that she enjoyed working with college students, eventually ended up teaching the course--and discovered her vocation. The next step was a PhD program at the University of Colorado. And in 1996, doctorate in hand, she came to Kenyon to fill a two-year visiting position.

"It was clear to us that she was someone we wanted to keep at the College," says colleague Ric Sheffield. "I can remember students raving about her classes."

Thomas returned to Kenyon in 2000, won a new tenure-track position in 2002, and earned tenure two years later.

Meanwhile, Sweden had entered her life in 1997, in the form of an intensive two-week summer program run by the University of Kansas and devoted to studying health care and social policies--she initially went in order to broaden the scope of her "Health and Illness" course. "It was all site visits," she says. "We talked to policymakers and doctors, we went to hospitals and primary-care clinics. I learned so much in those two weeks. And I fell in love with Sweden."

For the past three years, she has served as an instructor in the summer program. And last year she spent her sabbatical there, using maternity issues as a way of studying how individual choice--so important to American health-care consumers--figures in a nationalized system. Her family lived in Nacka, a suburb of Stockholm, and her two children attended an international school. (Eric is now a sophomore at Mount Vernon High School, Liz a seventh grader at the middle school.) Gary, an attorney specializing in aviation law, had started a career as an independent consultant and was able to come along, too.

Thomas misses the exhilaration of living abroad, not to mention excellent public transportation, Scandinavian salmon, and a type of cinnamon bun called kanelbullar. She even misses the winter's eerily early dark, or at least the habit of lighting candles at dusk for coziness.

But she maintains strong connections. During the fall, a Swedish midwife and PhD with whom Thomas had collaborated came to Kenyon to investigate the possibility of expanding a major Swedish study of maternal care to include comparative data from Ohio. Thomas organized a meeting that included Kenyon faculty but also a range of health professionals from the county.

This time the portal was academe. But the point, as always, was the world.

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