Dubai Native Finds Purpose Leading Learning Community Council
“I think when people hear about UConn’s Learning Communities, they think it is all work and no play. But that’s not how it is,” said Joel Thomas, a junior majoring in finance.
“We’re not nerds!” he continued. “We are students exploring our passions, excelling in our classes and having a really good time.”
Thomas, who grew up in Dubai, serves as the president of the Learning Communities Executive Council, supporting UConn’s 26 diverse residential learning communities. More than 2,800 first- and second-year students select a residential learning community, including more than 40 percent of the incoming class.
The learning community options are plentiful, ranging from major-based communities, like the Business Connections Learning Community and the Engineering Learning Community to the WiMSE (Women in Math, Science and Engineering). Other learning communities, such as Innovation House, Humanities House, Connecting with the Arts house and ScHOLA2RS (a learning center dedicated to African-American men) are open to students of any major.
“The Learning Communities are impacting so many lives,” Thomas said. “Our goal is to make sure students are better set for success and to get them to explore opportunities beyond their comfort zones.”
One of the Council’s recent accomplishments is the creation of a program to pair undergraduate students with faculty who will welcome them as research assistants. Beyond the academic, the organization hosts block parties, LC Spirit Week and a Field Day.
“Joel is a driven, charismatic go-getter with great potential for a successful career in business,” said Helen DeBald, advisor to the Council and a coordinator of first-year programs. “I am struck by his ability to balance many obligations while remaining authentic and invested in the UConn community. It is clear Joel is someone who does not take opportunities for granted.”
Thomas has a hearty laugh and a ready smile. When told he was erroneously identified as a native of Bermuda, he laughed. “At least people would know where that is! No one has heard of Bahrain,” he said. His parents currently live in Bahrain, a nation of 30 islands in the Arabian Gulf, which is what he defines as home.
As an international student, it took a while for UConn to feel familiar, he said. He had searched for a college with a strong business program and a beautiful campus. Having family in Connecticut sealed the deal.
“I think the hardest part was being so far away from home and having to adjust to a new culture in such a short period of time,” he said. “However, being in the Business Connections Learning Community (BCLC) really helped me understand the “way things work here” and it also helped make some incredible friends who definitely made the transition a lot smoother.”
As a member of the BCLC, Thomas was networking with business professionals by his third week of class.
“Your career development starts early on,” he said. “That’s what I most enjoyed about living in the learning community… the exposure, the lunch-and-learns, the alumni coming to talk to us. You can’t put a price on that. I liked that at UConn, they don’t ‘throw you in the deep end.’ The programs are really designed to help you with your classes, your network and your future.”
Thomas entered UConn as a management major but was paired with a mentor, Ben Duell ’07, an investment banking associate at Goldman Sachs, and that experience drew him to finance. “I would love to work at a big bank,” he said. “I’m a finance guy, so I dream about Wall Street.”
Thomas is already thinking of earning a master’s degree after he graduates in 2019. What will he miss most about UConn after he leaves Storrs?
“Not having any bills to worry about yet!” he jokes. “Seriously, my friends. I’ve made some incredible friends at UConn who are both very driven and very fun. I think the variety of people you meet on a daily basis is incredible, people from different cultures and walks of life. When you get into the workplace, I don’t think you get to meet people with such diverse interests and personalities.”