Taryn Thomas: Conviction of a True Student Leader
By Robert Daniels
Very few things in life are more impressive than the brilliance of the youth, except when that intellectual prowess is matched by the courage and conviction of a true leader. That statement describes Taryn Thomas to the tee.
The 18-year-old Stanford University student is the best version of the next generation. Poised to be a future medical professional, Thomas is truly an anomaly as she possesses both the heart and compassion of a great veterinarian and the soul and strength of a civil rights-era activist.
Thomas’ list of honors and accomplishments is long and varied but it is the one award night that she came up empty that will amaze you.
In June 2022, Thomas became the first African-American student to earn the title of valedictorian in the history of Beaumont High School in Beaumont. A history that begins in 1909, two years before they even had a fully constructed building to house students. That is one valedictorian in 113 years. But like everything else in her journey, that is only part of the incredible story.
All the while at the school she encountered the worst that humanity has to offer. The name-calling, bullying, micro-aggressions, and forced isolation were daily occurrences in the city she moved to with her parents just after eighth grade. She freely admits it was difficult to make friends and it led her down some dark mental paths.
“I moved to Beaumont at the beginning of ninth grade and I was having a hard time adjusting. I wasn’t a social butterfly at all so there were a lot of challenges. I spent a lot of time eating lunch alone. I was struggling with mental health.”
But one particular incident spurred the moment that Thomas knew something had to be done.
“There is a bridge in Beaumont and someone had hanged themselves and we saw the aftermath. I saw the news and the way they worded the article it seemed like it was more of an obstruction to traffic than a tragedy. It seemed that no one really cared and I felt really disturbed by it.”
Those feelings, in part, are what led her to start a club to support the mental health of students at the school. Thomas does not stand by and wait for change, she creates it. It was not unusual for the weekly club to have up to 50 students supporting each other through the mental strain of being a teenager in the town 25 miles southeast of San Bernardino.
If you thought that was her biggest accomplishment, you would be wrong. Thomas was a varsity basketball player in her sophomore year but chose to stop playing to focus more on her studies.
Her mother explains, “She had to make a decision whether or not to continue to play basketball or to try to continue her schooling because when they went to those games they would get home at 11 o’clock at night and she had a heavy course load.”
On top of her course schedule, Taryn was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities as well. She became a student trustee for the Beaumont school district, was on the Redlands Youth Council, was Co-Commissioner of the Riverside County Youth Advisory Council, and was Policy Director of the California Association of Student Councils.
Thomas was also on the Youth Advisory Council for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was one of only 12 California students selected for the board. It is the accomplishment she is most proud of. “We do amazing work in terms of advising administration, working with policy makers to having focus groups and overall working on projects that relate to the inequality of our education.” For Black History Month, the council put on a panel discussion that drew a crowd of more than 2000 people.
However, it is the speech that she made on graduation day that makes her a legend. In a viral video that can be described many ways depending on your perspective, Thomas was courageous, demanding, empathetic, honest, and inspirational. Her words, while playful in moments were clearly meant to create an understanding of what it felt like to be a black student in a racially toxic environment.
“I wanted to talk about something different. Being the first Black valedictorian, that is no lightweight title and I thought I have to talk about being black in the school. At first, I got a lot of people that discouraged me from talking about my experience. Although the school administrators didn’t say not to do it, you could see they were wary about what I was going to say. And I felt like they wanted me to change it to something else,” Thomas explained.
“I wanted to talk about what it is like to be black because some students — they’ll probably go their entire lives without ever having to think about racism,” she added.
Now the Southern California native finds herself at Stanford University in Palo Alto, just 35 miles away from San Francisco. The neuroscience major has been working toward her goals from a very young age when her mother Deirdre Thomas put her in STEM summer camps, debate teams and accentuated the value of a good education.
“When she was little I instilled a love for reading with her,” said Deirdre
“She always took AP classes and she would take classes at the community college. She participated in a research project at Loma Linda.”
When asked what her proudest moment involving Taryn was, Dee replied, “It doesn’t have anything to do with the educational component. It’s her sense of empathy that she has for other people and her advocacy. Taryn is a fighter. She really cares about people. One of the things I’m most proud of is how she stands up for people.”
That is an incredible statement for someone with as many accolades as Taryn, but it was the one night she was not rewarded for her achievements that makes a statement.
On senior awards night, the valedictorian of the school didn’t get one student award. A young woman who had the highest GPA in her senior class, a list of clubs and student advocacy councils longer than her arm, volunteer work, an internship, and countless college acceptance letters didn’t get one student award. That’s interesting to say the least.
Remember the name, Taryn Thomas. You will hear it again.