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Dr. Jennie Orr Thomas and Daniel Thomas establish a new scholarship for diversity, equity and inclusion in Lyman Briggs College

June 28, 2021 - LBC Communications

When Dr. Jennie Orr Thomas stepped foot on the campus of Michigan State University in 1969, she was at the same time enthralled by the learning opportunities and daunted by the number of people: MSU had roughly three times the population of her entire hometown in North Idaho. A strong student with an aptitude for math, Orr was drawn to the liberal science education available through Lyman Briggs College and its tight-knit community, and had earned two prestigious scholarships to attend the university, one based on research she had done in theoretical mathematics. However, a summer of mathematics research at MSU before her freshman year convinced her that she did not want to make math research her career.

For Orr, a student who came from a small town with no computers (the nearest computer was at a bank in Spokane, Washington), the opportunity to work with computers remotely from Holmes Hall and at the Computer Science building was fascinating. She enjoyed exploring various scientific fields, but most enjoyed the process of writing code for computers: elegant, efficient code that was of utmost importance because of slow computer processing times in the early seventies. Computer Science built upon Orr’s passion for math and logic, and she saw the field as a more practical avenue for helping people than more strictly theoretical fields.

Jennie Orr Thomas and Daniel ThomasOrr received her Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and a minor in chemistry in 1973, as a member of the third graduating class of Lyman Briggs College, and one of only seven women in the over 100 computer science graduates at MSU that year. Technology remained an interest for her, but a persistent question dogged her: “Is there a way I can more clearly and directly help people?” Orr observed that, in the early seventies, women were starting to find more opportunities in the medical field. The newly-formed MSU College of Human Medicine also had more women enroll than most medical schools nationwide. In addition, it had a reputation for promoting collaboration and teamwork. Orr enrolled in the third class in the College of Human Medicine and earned her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1976.

Orr became a board-certified family physician with a strong interest in obstetrics. Over the course of her career, she became more and more well-versed in emergency obstetrics, practicing in rural Minnesota where obstetricians were not available 24/7 during her first two decades of practice. While continuing family practice, she extended her obstetrics knowledge to others through teaching cesarean sections and ultrasound scans to medical residents in clinics and hospitals in Bangladesh and Guatemala over the course of fifteen short-term visits over nearly 20 years. Even past retirement, Orr has stayed active in mentoring programs and tutoring in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and elsewhere via Zoom.

When she retired in 2020, and her mother passed away the same year, Orr and her husband, Daniel Thomas, decided to give nearly 100% of their cash income away that year, establishing several endowed scholarships in educational institutions. The Thomases believe that education empowers people and is an enduring good. The couple’s generosity stems from several of their values: faith, frugality, and family. Their Christian faith instills a value of giving and serving. Orr quotes an important verse for her from the biblical book of Luke: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

Further, the Thomas’ faith informs their passion for social justice and equity, and their conviction that all people have worth. Orr has been involved in helping their community of faith understand white privilege and racial disparities which became more salient in 2020 after George Floyd was killed in their metropolitan area. The Thomas family recognizes the need for greater inclusion and racial and gender equity in STEM. That recognition is personal for Orr and her daughter, Lori Thomas, a software engineer.

The Thomas’ value of frugality was a framework to help them live beneath their means throughout their careers and save for retirement so that they were able to fund this scholarship at LBC and one at the College of Human Medicine with Orr’s final pay.

Finally, their love for family informed their giving: They also established two scholarships in Orr’s mother’s memory—one at the college she attended, and one for graduates of the high school where she taught.

Orr writes, “This scholarship is part of my response to this challenge of making a difference and giving back, and I hope as a result of their Briggs experience, the recipients can enter the exciting and rewarding field of science and technology with the confidence that they belong and have important contributions to make and that they, too, will find ways to pay it forward.”

Image caption: Jennie Orr Thomas and Daniel Thomas. Image courtesy of the Thomases