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True Carolina Blue: Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, but calls Pembroke home. “Robeson County is where all of my family is from,” he says. “I have a large family with lots of aunts and uncles, three brothers—one is my twin—and two sisters. Most of our summers were spent in Pembroke.” Tyler explains that his family is part of the Lumbee tribe. “My mother took an active role in ensuring we maintained a connection to our roots,” he explains. “I appreciate that connection and really enjoy attending family gatherings and helping my grandmother in the garden. That’s when I hear great stories about our family’s past.”

Tyler has always had a passion for helping people, an example he learned from his mother, who is a retired elementary school music teacher, and his father, who works for Goodwill. “I have always had a desire to give back, especially in the American Indian community. The connection I feel to my Lumbee heritage is very deep.”

In his application for the MPA program, Tyler wrote, “Every time I visit down home, I pass a tall white-columned landmark, the heartbeat of the first state-supported university for Indians, UNC-Pembroke. There, in that moment of recognition, I feel a deep connection to my surroundings—Robeson County, the land of the Lumbees, and my beloved homeland. I have a commitment and desire to serve America’s ‘First People,’ and I believe the nation’s first public institution [UNC-Chapel Hill] can facilitate my accomplishing this goal.”

Tyler believes that the ethics training he is receiving in the MPA program will also help and guide him in his career. “Growing up, I witnessed and read about a lot of corruption, especially misuse of public resources,” he says. “I think I have the people’s best interest at heart, and I hope to one day be making ethical decisions to better the communities where I work and live.”

Tyler received a degree in exercise and sports science from UNC-Chapel Hill. While an undergraduate, he was president of the Carolina Indian Circle and a member of the American Indian Center’s Internal Advisory Committee. As part of his work at the University’s Office for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, he encouraged high school students to attend college. At UNC’s Graduate School recruitment fair, he was drawn to the MPA program. “The values stated in the recruitment material really spoke to me,” he says, “and I find the MPA alumni network and small student cohort to be of real value. Also, I was interested in having a generalist degree. The skill set I acquire will be useful, regardless of where I go in my career.”

Tyler is part of a first-year team evaluating the Work Mentor Program for Builders of Hope, a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing and job training. He is preparing for a summer internship with Robeson County local government and looking forward to helping his home county.

Tyler is a 2009–2010 recipient of a Hayman-Howard-Wright Scholarship.

This profile was first published in the Spring 2010 issue of Impact newsletter.