Now known for his calm and collected demeanor, Bill Thomas, professor of information technology and computer science, was panicked on his first day as a college professor. “I was asking myself, ‘what have I done?!?’” Bill recalls. The stakes were high. Bill had quit his job of 15 years, sold his home, and uprooted his wife and four young children to pursue a career teaching at Mount Aloysius College. What may seem spontaneous from the outside was really part of Bill’s history of quick-witted decisions that helped him carve his own path. Raised in the small town of Salona, Pennsylvania, Bill tempered the risk of leaving his family by staying close to home and attending Lock Haven University. Choosing a university was easy. But, when it came to choosing a major, the decision was not so simple. “The cut-off for being an undeclared major was three semesters, and I was pushing five,” Bill recalls, grinning. “The guidance counselor gave me an ultimatum: declare a major or don’t come back.”
With lightning-fast processing speed, Bill quickly selected the field of computer science and discovered himself on the fast track for a degree.
“Completing a degree in my remaining two years of college demanded extreme focus, and I’m a better person for it,” Bill says. “The computer science field is ever changing and I thoroughly enjoy the challenge and excitement of staying current with new technology.”
After graduation, Bill married his wife, Tilda, with whom he’d go on to have four children: Colt, Carly, Tyler, and Tessa. After settling down, Bill landed a job as a programmer and analyst at AMP, Inc., in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Looking to expand his expertise, he pursued a master’s degree at Shippensburg University.
While attending graduate school, he acquired a part-time job at Wilson College teaching adult evening classes to earn some extra money for his growing family. During his weekly sessions at Wilson, the seed to teach started to take root. “I realized the impact my passion for computer science could have on my students’ lives,” says Bill. “I thought teaching might be something I should try full time.” After he completed his master’s degree, Bill spied an ad for a position at Mount Aloysius. But leaving solid employment in an industry where he worked profitably for 15 years caused many sleepless nights. One night, he said to his wife, “I just can’t do this.” Tilda assured him that if teaching was his calling, together they would figure it out.
With his family’s blessing behind him, Bill accepted the teaching position at Mount Aloysius. Despite his brief panic on the first day, Bill admits, “I never looked back. I never regretted starting teaching full time, even in that moment of fear.” When his own children started their college search, Bill discovered, through an ad in the Altoona Mirror, the variety and opportunity of Juniata’s academic environment. He applied for the position and, during his daylong job interview, fell in love with the campus, thinking “it felt like home.”
“Ultimately it is the students who are eager and willing to learn that makes teaching at Juniata so easy and so inspiring.” Bill Thomas, professor of information technology and computer science
That day, he was also afforded the opportunity to deliver his own lecture to a computer science class.
“This time, no panic attack,” Bill says. “I was so adrenalized by the students’ level of engagement, excitement, and genuine interest.”
With five years of teaching under his belt, Bill was comfortable and confident on his first day as a faculty member at Juniata. He knew what to expect. What he had not expected in his journey to Juniata—another quick but joyful twist in Bill’s teaching trek—was that his partnership with students would earn him the esteemed Beachley Award for Distinguished Teaching in spring 2017.
“I’m fortunate to work with amazing faculty members who support one another, both professionally and personally,” Bill says, recalling that his colleagues nominated him for the award. “But ultimately it is the students who are eager and willing to learn that makes teaching at Juniata so easy and so inspiring.”
Those students included all four of his children. Even after he and Tilda encouraged many tours of other institutions, each Thomas child was sold on Juniata’s environment and chose to attend the college where their father teaches. Thankfully, none were ever called in by administration demanding they declare a major. Three pursued IT degrees, like their father, and thus had to take their dad’s classes, like Android Programming, Security Engineering, Web Design, Network Design and Management, and Innovations for Industry.
Taking courses from a parent could cause anxiety in many students, but the Thomas kids and Bill himself were never anxious about it.
“It’s second nature to teach, especially with my kids, despite the more formal environment,” Bill recalls. “Our daily lunches in my office were an added bonus.”
His fears had evaporated since that first day of teaching, years ago. At Juniata, the Thomas family has found their home.