Strength through diversity

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zach Bumpus
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
With a bachelor's degree in engineering, a master's degree in mining and three languages under her belt Odile Thomas, 501st Combat Support Wing energy manager, is already exceptional. But her experience isn't all that sets her apart.

Her accent gives her away.

"I'm originally from Belgium," said Thomas. "I grew up just outside SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe), which is a NATO base. It's where I met my husband. From there we moved to Colorado Springs, and eventually to RAF Alconbury."

Under normal circumstances moving can be a very stressful time. However, when that move transplanted Thomas from her home country halfway around the world, it proved to be especially daunting.

"I didn't expect it to be as big of a culture shock as it was," said Thomas. "When I first got to Colorado I didn't speak the language fluently, so I couldn't participate in all the fun parts of life: TV, friends, conversation, anything. I didn't really have any friends, I was just hanging out with friends of my husband - people from his work."

The language barrier remained troublesome for Thomas for quite some time.

"I didn't meet anybody who spoke French for six or seven months," said Thomas. "Somebody gave me a card to a language center. I went there and had a discussion with their director who knew somebody who spoke French and had a meet up group."

Thomas began attending the group, finding in it a way to maintain her identity that she hadn't had before. Through the group she also found a means of employment.

"My degree is in mining, but because I was living in the United States my certifications didn't carry over so I couldn't work in that," said Thomas. "But someone from my group had connections to do translating work so I started doing that, then I started tutoring French and then got hired full time at a private school to teach French."

Smiling at the uniqueness of her experience, Thomas recalled her time as a teacher; so different from her passion for engineering and her current job as the 501st CSW energy manager.

"I had never considered that I would work a job that involved my language before," said Thomas. "I never thought I would be teaching anything. I had all these experiences just because I spoke another language."

Thomas didn't let her experiences go to waste; she took all the lessons she could from her unexpected path.

"I learned that I had to adapt very quickly," said Thomas. "As a teacher, the whole classroom is depending on you. I had to go at a faster pace."

In the way that diversity is about learning from the differences of others, Thomas said she just happened to find herself as the teacher.

"It was a great experience," said Thomas. "It was very fulfilling. Kids are so genuine about asking what they want to know, so they were very transparent. It was a beautiful way to learn a language."

Just as Thomas found that she had become a teacher through her diversity, her diversity taught her valuable lessons as well. It taught her to be resilient to adversity, quick to adapt to change and open to new possibilities.