Being too far from home, becoming lost in the crowd, or standing out for not belonging. These are just a few of the many concerns Arielle Thomas ’18 faced as she began her college search. But, in a single trip to Valparaiso University, Arielle found her home for the next four years and hasn’t looked back. Arielle has thrived at Valpo, actively participating in her college journey, relishing in the support of the Valpo community, and finding comfort in a place where she can be true to herself.
“Arielle is an amazing young lady. As a student, she strives for excellence and consistently makes positive contributions to the classroom,” says Byron Martin, M.Ed., director of multicultural programs. “Outside the classroom, she is a leader that is able to connect deeply and richly with everyone she comes in contact with.”
Arielle first came to Valparaiso University to attend the Summer Global Leadership Institute (SGLI), a program that brings together high school students from around the world to experience university life both inside and outside the classroom. Arielle was immersed in a diverse environment, where she engaged with, learned from, and was challenged by individuals from various cultural backgrounds.
“I had to rid myself of misconceptions and open myself to new, even uncomfortable, situations to learn,” Arielle says. “I’ve done more learning outside of the classroom at Valpo than inside, and I think that’s a large part of what SGLI helped me do.”
The program consisted of several team-building activities and extensive hands-on experience in a chosen field of interest, which was nursing for Arielle. She attended academic seminars and workshops and visited Valpo’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, where she met Valpo nursing professors and the College dean. She enjoyed many experiences outside the classroom, including trips to Chicago and the Indiana Dunes and a fashion show, featuring the students themselves.
Through SGLI, Arielle gained a global perspective, made enduring friendships, and became inspired by the program directors. She “fell in love” with Valpo. From that moment, she took every possible opportunity to be on the campus she “loved everything about,” touring campus, attending the Admitted Student Day, and experiencing an overnight visit.
Arielle arrived on campus her freshman year with a support system already in place, consisting of professors and students from SGLI she had established “family-like” relationships with. And, after a brief glimpse into the College of Nursing and Health Professions, was confident in her decision to pursue nursing.
A semester later Arielle found herself at a crossroads, she was struggling in her nursing courses and was forced to re-evaluate her chosen field of study. After much self-reflection, she decided to become a communication major, which she now describes as the “best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Valpo steered me in the right direction and helped me choose my career path” Arielle says. “What I love about Valpo is that there is always a way to make things work.”
Arielle attributes much of her success to Professor Andrew Stem ’05, ’13 M.S., who served as a program director of SGLI. From Valpo Core, the University’s signature first-year experience, to courses within her major, Professor Stem has pushed Arielle to excel in the classroom. Beyond the boundaries of the classroom walls, Professor Stem has offered Arielle endless support and advise, serving as her unofficial advisor, mentor, and friend.
The communications major has provided Arielle with much flexibility, enabling her to tailor her courses to meet her interests. With a keen interest in African American culture, she has reveled in the chance to take a race relations course as well as Black Theology and Black Church.
Arielle has gained technical skills in speaking, writing, and interviewing and, perhaps most important, she has found her voice. In her public speaking course, Arielle was given a platform to not only share pieces of herself and her passions, but to educate her fellow classmates. She selected Madame CJ Walker for her first speech and found her classmates had never heard of her. For Arielle, situations such as this became a “blessing in disguise,” enabling her to expand the minds of those around her.
“What surprised me the most about being a communication major was how much fun I’ve had … public speaking was fun,” Arielle says. “I’ve talked about things I care about and educated the people around me. These teaching moments have been the best part of communications.”
Arielle was recently recognized for her academic excellence through an invitation to Lambda Pi Eta, the communication department’s honor society.
“Arielle has made the most of her Valpo experience. She has faced a fair share of adversity during her time here, and she has risen above it to be incredibly successful,” Professor Stem says. “She has really come into her own in her three years on campus, and I look forward to seeing what she accomplishes as a senior and beyond.”
Like many Valpo students, Arielle has embraced the University’s commitment to community outreach, extending her impact beyond the classroom. She felt called to a life of service from the moment she arrived on campus and has immersed herself in the Valparaiso community through volunteer opportunities.
As a freshman, Arielle learned she could obtain a general studies credit for volunteering and began to teach at the Boys and Girls Club and later for Hilltop Neighborhood House, a daycare in Valparaiso, Ind. After obtaining the maximum credit for volunteering, she engaged with the community through work study. She tutored at Parkview Elementary every chance she had, arriving at 7 a.m. then returning in the evening after class. Arielle has taken advantage of the experiential learning opportunities provided at Hilltop. In addition to teaching, she has designed flyers and pamphlets and managed social media accounts, becoming more marketable to employers upon graduation.
“There’s never a shortage of volunteer opportunities at Valpo. Once I started volunteering, I couldn’t stop; I wanted to do everything,” Arielle says. “There is no greater feeling than helping someone else and making their day just a little brighter. It’s important to be a servant, a blessing, and an inspiration to others.”
The Black Student Organization (BSO) has been another avenue for Arielle to give back to the Valpo community and beyond. She is currently a member of the event planning committee, helping brainstorm about potential events down to details such as food and music. Arielle has enjoyed the supportive, inclusive environment of BSO, which provides a platform to educate others about the African American culture and also gives African American students the space to celebrate and showcase their cultural pride.
Four years after her inaugural visit to Valpo, Arielle finds herself in a “full circle moment,” as she served as an international ambassador for SGLI this summer. Arielle expresses extreme gratitude for the opportunity to serve as a leader — to guide, mentor, and inspire the next generation of prospective Valpo students.
Arielle anticipates a senior year full of exciting, new experiences. She will study in Costa Rica this fall, an opportunity she never thought was in her realm of possibilities, which she says is characteristic of her Valpo experience.
“At Valpo, I’ve been given the space to grow,” Arielle says. “I’ve been pushed in places I didn’t want to be pushed and challenged to go beyond.”