Paying it forward through education

Kris Thomas
Degree: Doctorate in Urban Education with a major in Human Resource Development, School of Education
Hometown: Port Washington, Wis.
It’s a fact:  He keeps his guitar next to his desk for a stress reliever – he says his guitar skills greatly improved while he was a doctoral student.

Having a high school chemistry teacher for a father, Kris Thomas knew he wanted to follow in those footsteps. But he also knew his path would be a little different.

“I really wanted to teach adults,” he explains. “Adults are very purposeful in their learning, which makes it very direct and impactful. Most adults are really engaged. And for those who aren’t, it’s a fun challenge to figure out how to draw them in.”

After receiving his undergrad in English and Secondary Education, Thomas found a career in which he could achieve his goal of teaching adults – human resources. For the next 13 years, he served in many different HR and training roles. Not wanting to neglect his own education, he also completed his MBA during this time.

And then, he had a revelation.

“I didn’t want to be a jack of all trades, master of none,” Thomas explains. “I wanted to focus on the one thing that I like the most, which is developing people.” Recognizing the correlation between his education degree and experience in the workforce, he saw a clear path ahead.

“I had always wanted my Ph.D.,” he says. “I even told my wife on our first date that at some point I’d be going back to get a Ph.D.”

Though his next steps shocked many colleagues, it was all part of the master plan for Thomas.

He walked away from his successful job to pursue his Doctorate in Human Resource Development at UWM.

He spent the first year focusing full time on his studies. In the second year, he earned a graduate assistantship in the Department of Administrative Leadership, writing, researching and helping professors deliver online courses in D2L.

In 2010, he traveled to Shanghai for an Academy of Human Resource Development conference. “That experience opened my eyes to the possibilities in the academic world,” he says. “We all came from very different places, but we all faced the same issues.”

Throughout his diverse experiences at UWM, one thing struck Thomas the most.

“The degree of selflessness of the faculty,” he says. “They help people get to where they want to go, and that’s what they did for me. I want to pay it forward by doing the same for others.”

Before successfully defending his dissertation in the fall of 2013, Thomas was already putting his doctoral degree to use as a leadership development manager at MillerCoors – a perfect fit for him.

“MillerCoors is heavily invested in learning and development,” he explains. “In my role, I focus specifically on senior leadership. These are people running multimillion-dollar businesses – their training needs are different. I’m using what I learned through my graduate assistantship to create online courses that they can complete in a way that works for them.”

While many people would be content after achieving such success, Thomas isn’t done yet.

“I want to be a scholar practitioner,” he explains. “I love the corporate world, and I also want to keep a toe in the academic waters.”

One day, Thomas hopes to teach as an adjunct and make an impact in the academic world. And while education may be his way of paying it forward, it will certainly pay off big for all those he educates.

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