In helping nominate Jennifer Thompkins for this award, Professor Susanna Throop from the history department called Jennifer “an agent for positive change.” Many would say there is no better way to describe her.
Ever since she first stepped foot on this campus back in 2005, Jennifer has been that agent for change by actively seeking opportunities to lead, learn from and listen to others. As an undergrad, she learned from the past—graduating with honors in history and winning the Elizabeth B. White Award for the best essay in history. And she learned from those around her—serving as a thoughtful, engaged leader in multiple organizations on campus, including as a student activities coordinator, a chaplain assistant and as president of Sankofa Umoja Nia (SUN). Her love of learning and engaging with those around her in meaningful work spurred her on to Harvard, where she earned a master’s of theological studies in American religious history on a full scholarship and served the university’s African American Student Union as vice president.
Jennifer has transformed her natural-born roles of youth advocate and community organizer into a thriving career. After graduating from Harvard, she returned to her home state to nurture and inspire Philadelphia’s youth as director of Y Achievers at the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Jennifer spent four years growing the organization from 600 students to a regional program of over 1,600. This was so much more than just a job for Jennifer. She invited guest speakers, planned college and career prep workshops, secured donations from major corporations, involved local volunteers, organized teen social activities and even wrote the monthly newsletter. But in addition to being an administrative powerhouse, Jennifer is a warm, fun-loving person who genuinely enjoys being around young people and engaging with them on their level. They are drawn to her, and she is always happy to give them a listening ear or a helping hand. Says Shannon Brown, a former Ursinus classmate, about Jennifer’s time at the YMCA, “Jennifer built and empowered the students to be pillars in their communities. She is a true philanthropist for the Pennsylvania community.”
There is no doubt that our local community has benefited greatly from Jennifer’s hard work, but in 2015, she also shared her passion on a global scale. For four months, Jennifer worked at the World Alliance of YMCAs in Geneva, Switzerland, writing grants and emergency relief plans, developing curriculum and acting as an ambassador for the organization and its youth at conferences around the European Union. Upon her return to the United States, she continued to work at the YMCA until 2017, when she accepted the position of assistant director of youth programs at TriZen, where she is now director of programs. TriZen embodies much of what is important to Jennifer. A business consulting and leadership development company, TriZen is a force for good in our community by developing the workforce of the Philadelphia area through training and other educational programming.
In addition to devoting her career to empowering others, Jennifer is a mentor and role model in every aspect of her personal life as well. As the youth director at the Theist Temple Church of God in Christ in Norristown and as the Young Women of Excellence coordinator for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Youth Department, she teaches youth important leadership and life skills. As a volunteer youth chapter advisor to the Norristown NAACP, she helps students dream big and reach high toward a college education. In 2011, she started her own consulting business, Eye for Education, which also prepares minority middle and high school students for higher education.
And throughout all of this, she has kept close ties to Ursinus, inviting UC students to her community events and bringing youth to campus to participate in African American and Africana Studies programming. Professor Edward Onaci of the history department has said that Jennifer “embodies the college’s mission. She has ‘become [an] independent, responsible and thoughtful’ person who ‘live[s] creatively and usefully,’ and who ‘provide[s] leadership for [our] society in an interdependent world.’”
Jennifer is indeed a rising star in her field, but one who lifts others as she rises.
For her outstanding success as a community organizer and youth leader, for her continued involvement with Ursinus College and for her unfailing determination to better yourself and those around you, we are proud to present her with the 2020 Rising Star Alumni Award.
Q&A with Jennifer Thompkins ’09
How is winning an Ursinus Alumni Award significant for you personally and professionally? Winning this award has given me a license to continue to (in the words of the late civil rights icon, John Lewis) “get in good trouble!” The good trouble that ensures a quality education for all students that is impacted by socioeconomic status, race or gender. Good trouble that works to break down laws of voter suppression and denial! Good trouble, that fights to end poverty and inequity! And when I get into good trouble, I hope to leave a better world to our children than the world that was willed to me!
What was your proudest UC moment? My proudest moment at Ursinus was my honors’ thesis defense: The Strength of African American in Small Southern Communities between 1940-1970. As a result of the defense, I won the Elizabeth B. White History Award, the highest honor of the Ursinus College History Department and named the highest ranking student of the department!
How did Ursinus prepare you for a career in nonprofit leadership and youth programming? Ursinus provided me a space to freely innovate and to think critically. Innovation and critical thinking are “musts” in nonprofit leadership, as you have to move mountains on a budget! In addition, Ursinus gave me a strong community which became my professional network. Through this network, I am able to create lasting professional partnerships to execute quality programming and provide resources to the youth I serve.
How did your Ursinus mentors helped shape you as a leader in your community? My Ursinus mentors led by example. All of my mentors were community activists in their own right and reinforced a life of service. They also allowed me to have a “voice” at the table where decisions were being made. This is how I learned the power of my own voice! Because of this, when I have a chance to speak, I never waste it! I always take the opportunity to speak up for those who have not been afforded the same advantages as I have.
What advice do you have for fellow students and young alumni on how to persevere in a challenging job market and economy?
I would give them this advice: Despise not small things because you never know who will give you your next opportunity! While you are waiting for your employment opportunity, volunteer and be of service. In addition, build relationships. In a world that is so instantaneous, slow down and create authentic relationships. Those relationships become your network and your community. And if you take care of the community and love them, they will always take care of you!
Lastly, take this time to invest in you. Work on your image, your public speaking skills and your personal brand. If you do these things, when the right opportunity comes along, you will be ready to embrace the opportunity and thrive!