Ask Kimberly Cooper Thomas about her career path, and she can't help but laugh.
"I am the whole winding, bumpy road," says Thomas, the director of the Joseph F. Decosimo Success Center in the UTC Gary W. Rollins College of Business.
Her career has veered from practicing law in Alabama and Florida to years spent raising children in Indiana to running a university student conduct office in Nevada, with the added challenges of raising a family with a football coach who changed jobs at regular intervals.
It may not be a conventional path, but it has left her uniquely prepared to help young people find their way in an increasingly complex world, Thomas says.
"Life is a continuum of learning," she says.
Several factors are linked to student success, including good time management and knowing how to access resources, but one of the most important things the college can do is give students "a safe place to change their minds," Thomas says.
"It's always been about how to support young people and make them feel more safe," she says. "When things don't go well, who do you feel safe talking to?"
And, she adds, it's important for students to live a little as they explore their educational and career options.
"Some of being successful is having a little fun, remaining curious about the world," Thomas says. "They often need encouragement to take risks."
Thomas stepped into the role at UTC in August 2020, and has oversight for academic advising, career services, recruitment, internships and other programs that contribute to student success. In her previous job as the dean of students at the University of Nevada, Reno, Thomas had campus-wide oversight. Now her focus is entirely on the roughly 2,500 students in the UTC business school.
One thing she has missed throughout the pandemic year is having students around, Thomas says. When some of them started stopping by the college to pick up graduation attire in April, she was elated to meet them in person after months of virtual meetings.
"I heard student voices, so I ran out there — I had never seen them in person," Thomas says. "That was exciting."
Thomas is on her second stint in Chattanooga, having first come here in 1991 to work as an attorney in Social Security appeals after law school at the University of Alabama.
She soon met Ricky Thomas, a coach, teacher and dorm leader for the McCallie School, and they married and had a daughter. But her husband wanted to coach college football, and soon the young family was on the move.
"I married a football coach, and I didn't know what that meant," Thomas says, laughing.
The family went from Kentucky, where a son was born, to North Carolina to Florida, and Thomas worked intermittently, but couldn't practice law outside of Alabama without taking the bar exam again — a prospect that did not appeal to the mother of two young children.
In Florida, she was standing in a Dillard's department store with her daughter and son when she struck up a conversation with a man who worked for the state attorney's office. He offered her his card when she told him she had been trying to find work she could do that put her law degree to work. A few weeks later, she met with members of the office for what she thought was an informal introduction. She left with an offer to work 24 hours a week as a paralegal.
"I called my husband and said, 'I think I just got a job,'" Thomas says.
She and her husband juggled demanding work schedules and small children as her role quickly expanded to encompass full-time work and multiple layers of responsibility. She had taken the bar and moved back into work as an attorney, but eventually the strain was too great, Thomas says.
Kimberly Cooper Thomas
* Job: Director of the Joseph F. Decosimo Success Center in the UTC Gary W. Rollins College of Business
* Hometown: Montgomery, Alabama
* Personal: Thomas is married to Ricky Thomas, dean of brotherhood and community at the McCallie School. They have a 28-year-old daughter and 24-year-old son.
"My mother came to visit, and she said, 'Y'all work too much,'" Thomas says. "So I made a decision to stop working and go home."
For more than a decade, Thomas threw her energy and skills into her family and volunteerism across activities from youth ministry to tennis. The family spent a decade in Indianapolis, then moved on to Nevada, where connections through her husband's coaching job led to a role for Thomas in the conduct office. Moving back into the workforce was a daunting prospect at first, she says.
"I empathize with students because I've had the same experiences," she says. "I had been out of the workforce for so long, and I had to reinvent myself. There really is not a script for that."
She started at 19 hours a week, expanded to 32, and then the head of the office announced she would be departing, and said she thought Thomas was the right candidate to take her place. That full-time role leading the conduct office eventually turned into an opportunity to become the dean of students, the job Thomas was in when her husband landed a role in 2018 as the dean of community and brotherhood at the McCallie School.
They spent a couple of years living apart while Thomas sought the right opportunity in Chattanooga — where she began her career and started her family 30 years ago.
Now, as she digs into her job here, Thomas is looking forward to seeing more faces on campus in the fall. Classes will be in-person, and that will change the mood at UTC, bringing the campus to life in a way that she hasn't had the chance to experience, Thomas says.
"Every time I see a student in the building, I get really excited," she says. "When students are around there is so much more opportunity to really understand their experience."
The young people entering college now are Gen Z, and they grew up inside technology, connecting over their phones through text and social media platforms, she points out. They take some heat from older generations for their tendency to default to technology rather than talking with people directly, but that changed in 2020, Thomas says.
"We have guilted them about that, but now everyone has to use technology more to stay connected," she says.