Olympic Track Medalist Gabby Thomas

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The Learning Curve Gabby Thomas

[00:00:27] Albert: Good day, everyone. Welcome to another episode of The Learning Curve podcast. I’m your host, Albert Cheng from the university of Arkansas and co-hosting with me today is Alisha Searcy. Hey, Alisha, how’s it going?

[00:00:41] Alisha: Oh, wonderful, Albert, how are you doing?

[00:00:43] Albert: Fine. Doing fine. Yeah, that’s right. I don’t know if I’ve wished you that since we were last together last year.

[00:00:50] Alisha: That’s right. It’s good to be back.

[00:00:52] Albert: Yeah. So, we’re going to have Gabby Thomas, American Olympian, coming up after the break. But before that let’s talk some news, [00:01:00] Alisha. I want to talk about a story that came out recently. It’s actually an opinion piece put out by the editorial board of the New York Post, and the title is Test Scores Prove Charter Schools Win Again: Time to Lift the Cap.”

[00:01:13] Albert: And it actually reminds me of the days when I was living in Massachusetts. I was in Massachusetts back in ‘16. I think that was the year when there was a ballot measure to lift the cap on charter schools there. And despite all the great evidence of improved test scores and student outcomes that referendum got defeated. And so there’s still that cap there. And yeah, I was actually quite surprised that that happened there, despite all the positive evidence on charters in Massachusetts. And so, it looks like we got a similar political situation brewing in New York and don’t know if you’ve had to deal with this. I mean, in Georgia, you’ve got an interesting charter situation there yourself, right?

[00:01:51] Alisha: We do, and frankly, our laws are pretty strong and unbiased because I helped pass some of them when I was in the legislature. But I think we’re lucky that we don’t have to deal with caps. I think the caps are done by school boards who don’t tend to approve them. I think in the last eight years, we may have had two charter schools approved. And so, what we’ve done instead is pass a constitutional amendment. That allows the state to authorize charter schools. But to your point, it’s frustrating for me. I am a charter supporter. I know that that’s not always the most popular view, but I just believe in parents having access to all options within the public school system.

[00:02:28] Alisha: And so, I think this is an example of how adults kind of get in the way of what’s best for kids. If you see the research says that charter schools are performing well, and in some cases, better, why not make sure that’s an option for families who want it? It doesn’t mean that we don’t want all public schools to work, especially traditional public schools.

[00:02:51] Alisha: But why not allow parents like myself — I have three school aged children at home. Not every kid is the same. Not every kid learns the same. And so, I think how about in 2024 let’s be hopeful that adults will get out of the way of doing what’s best for kids. Follow the research, right, and the science, and say, what’s best for my kid, what’s best for the kids in our community. How can we make sure that all of our public schools work regardless of what they’re called?

[00:03:18] Albert: I’m definitely in agreement with that. Any way to expand educational opportunity, really, to give these opportunities for kids that could really benefit from them. So, I’m, with you there. What story caught your eye recently?

[00:03:31] Alisha: So Chalkbeat has this great article about the issues to watch for 2024. Came out January 2, by Erica Meltzer. You know, it talks about everything, which I think is interesting to watch, right? So, first there’s the big one, I think, across the country is the fact that there may be a fiscal cliff. If you follow the work of Marguerite Rosa, I happened to go through the certification program that she does through Georgetown. It was incredible. I highly recommend it. But she’s a brilliant economist. If you don’t even know if that’s her real title, but smart woman who talks about education and finances.

[00:04:11] Alisha: And so, she’s been warning districts for the last couple of years that there might be a fiscal cliff because the end of those ESSER funds. And so, as a reminder, $190 billion has been given to districts in three waves over the pandemic. And so far, $122 billion of those dollars have been spent or committed by districts. And still, there are going to be $68 billion that need to be spent by the fall of this year, 2024. And so, there’s a concern because some districts use this money well for one-time type programs. Some of them use them for great programs, like for counseling and tutoring, help families find housing. The problem is, Albert, though, that when these funds end in the fall, you know, did they make the right financial decisions to make sure that this money could go on, right, past this time? Can they continue to support these programs? How are students and families going to be impacted with the end of these funds? I think all of us need to pay attention to our individual school districts, our individual states, to pay attention to how these funds were spent.

[00:05:23] Alisha: Unfortunately, in my state, the Department of Education is not actually tracking what districts are doing, and so it will be very difficult to figure that out, but in states where they have been tracking, I want us all to pay attention to what districts have done, and hopefully using these funds have had a great impact. A couple of other issues that have come up are that they’re saying that we should watch the effect that migrant students, particularly in the areas of like New York and Chicago, right, where they’ve come in from Central and South America needing a lot of services. And so, as we know, as a result of COVID and even before that, our own students have needed services in terms of mental health and wraparound services for students who are in poverty. So now these districts, and I think Denver is another one that comes to mind, they really have had a serious issue trying to help support these students who need a lot of help, right? We’re talking about kids who have serious emotional wounds from the things that they’ve seen and experienced on their journeys to the United States. Some of them are sleeping outside in tents. They’re, you know, navigating a new school system and so there’s a lot that the students are dealing with — the migrant students I’m talking — as well as the districts themselves, who are having to grapple with these issues financially, socially, academically. So, there’s a lot to watch there.

[00:06:45] Alisha: And then there are a lot of other issues, but the other one that I’ll mention is this whole ChatGPT issue. Those of us who are following this somewhat, and I can’t say I’m an expert in this, but I’ve certainly played with this tool a little bit in some of my work in K-12 education. I think people are concerned about how this is going to impact K-12 learning, and so far, the research is saying that there’s not an increase in student cheating because of ChatGPT, which I hope says kids actually want to learn and they have learned how to use this tool in a way that’s not about cheating, but it’s really about learning. And so again, I think so many issues in education are adult problems. And so, I’m hoping that adults will embrace ChatGPT and AI tools and implement them in a way that really helps to foster learning in classrooms. So that’ll be a huge issue to watch in 2024 as well.

[00:07:40] Albert: Yeah, I encourage listeners to check out that article. I mean, there’s a whole rundown of a lot of stories to pay attention to. And yeah, we’ll see how 2024 plays out another year. And it should be an exciting one. Absolutely. Well, speaking of excitement coming up after the break, stick with us, ‘cause we’ve got Gabby Thomas joining us on this show, American [00:08:00] Olympian.

[00:08:00] Albert: Gabby Thomas is a world-class American track athlete in the 100- and 200-meters sprint. She won the bronze medal in the 200 meters and a silver medal as part of the women’s 4×100 meters relay at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in summer 2023. She claimed the 200-meter silver medal in the World Athletics Championships in Budapest with a time of 21.81 seconds. She would also go on to win the gold as part of Team USA in the women’s 4×100 meters relay final with a championship record of 41.03 seconds. A graduate of Harvard University, she studied neurobiology and global health as an undergraduate. Thomas is pursuing a master’s degree in epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston at their Austin regional campus. Gabby, it’s great to have you on the show, welcome.

[00:09:16] Gabby: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[00:09:18] Albert: Let’s talk a little bit about your background and, growing up and some of your, formative experiences. So, you grew up in the Pioneer Valley of Western Mass. and attended the Williston Northampton School. Yeah, share with our listeners a little bit about your family, formative educational experiences, mentors, heroines, heroes. How did it all shape you to become a world-class athlete who also pursued — I mean, you’re working on an advanced degree in science as well!

[00:09:44] Gabby: Yeah. Yeah. I actually graduated in May, which is really exciting, but yeah, thank you. Thank you. grew up in Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts, and I went to Williston Northhampton School, which is kind of the smaller boarding school in the area. One of the most unique and helpful things about being in that type of environment was really like the familial atmosphere of being there. So especially being at Williston but even in Western Mass., you just have this community of people around you. And I tell people this all the time: When you’re trying to do something different in your life or embark on a new journey or have success in any area, you really want to focus on the environment that you’re in and the community that you’re a part of and surrounding yourself with people who are helping you grow.

[00:10:25] Gabby: And Western Massachusetts and Williston was exactly that for me. And going into it, I didn’t know that that’s what I was getting, right? I didn’t know that’s the kind of environment I’d be growing up in when my mom moved my brother and I up to Western Massachusetts, but that’s what I got. And I was surrounded by, you know, friends who we had really, really good and tight friendships. And we did sports together. We took our challenging classes together. We did all of our extracurricular activities together. I had coaches who were also my teachers. And so, they helped me grow in every avenue of my life and followed me in every part of it.

[00:10:58] Gabby: And were really committed to my development as a person. You know, with sports, outside of sports, with my friendships, with my family. And so,I had all of that and I don’t even think I realized it at the time, but as I look back and think about it, I mean, that was a huge part of my success because I felt so comfortable, you know, making mistakes with them, growing with them.

[00:11:18] Gabby: And one person that really comes to mind as you asked me, this question is my algebra teacher and my track coach, Mrs. McCullough. I hated algebra, but she was my math teacher and, she made, you know, I just loved her and she helped me so much with it. And she was really invested in me, and she’s still invested in me to this day. And she’s one of the, my biggest mentors and, and influences in my life. But that comes from being in that type of environment, having so many people who genuinely care about you.

[00:11:47] Albert: Yeah, yeah, that sounds like a great experience and I hope Ms. McCullough — might have to send her this show and hear that shout-out.

[00:11:53] Gabby: Yeah, and then you know that goes same with my family You know, I grew up with my mom in a single mother household and my twin brother. So, it was the three of us in the household and my mom was just the same way, very driven. Very invested in my development as a person. She was never too too stressed out about, the outcome, you know, upgrades or the outcome of, of what I did in sports, but it was always just about the journey and developing myself into the best version of myself that I could be across anything that I was doing. So, I think that’s just a really special part of my upbringing.

[00:12:23] Albert: Well, so let’s talk after Williston — you went off to Harvard and studied neurobiology and you ran NCAA track while you were there. So, at Harvard, you won 22 conference titles across three years in various track events. You know, set school and Ivy league records in 100 meters, 200 meters, indoor 60 meters. I don’t know, maybe the list could go on. Could you talk about those experiences? I mean, really in particular, how did you grow as an athlete from high school to college? And then how’d you balance the demands of being a student and an elite track competitor?

[00:12:58] Gabby: Oh my gosh. I mean, I will tell anyone that listens that that transition from high school to collegiate track and field was the roughest time period for me, I think, of my life to date. I don’t think understood demands that being a collegiate D1 athlete took from us. Coming from someone did sports and it was fun for me and it, you know, wasn’t the end-all, be-all of my activities and what I was doing. But yeah, so I mean, I arrived there and one reason I chose Harvard goes back to the environment factor was I understood that I had a coach who was very invested in our development and I had teammates who were trying to develop and create this culture at Harvard.

[00:13:35] Gabby: Of a very elite D1 track school. So, they were trying to compete with the likes of Oregon’s LSU, Florida’s, you know, that, that was kind of what we were going towards. And I wanted to be a part of that. And so, I don’t think I understood what it took to be a part of that when I arrived. So, one day my coach, he just sat me down and said, Hey, look, this isn’t intramurals, like we’re here to actually make a difference in the NCAA and do something special. So ,if you want to be a part of that, let me know. And then I had to have a mindset shift pretty quickly after that. I just kind of pulled it together. I always, you know, I say, if you want to do something, you figure out a way to get it done.

[00:14:06] Gabby: And I was really passionate about track, and I was growing to love it. And so, I just had to get it done. It became time management and just making time for what you prioritize and what you care about. So that meant going out a lot less with my friends. It meant eating healthier, you know, it meant getting my schoolwork done. It meant getting my schoolwork done in time so that I wasn’t stressed about it. Going into practice because stress can also affect your training. I did all of that, but I think at the end of the day, if anyone’s listening and they want to know how to balance those demands, I think it’s about really enjoying what you’re doing. Major in something that you are passionate about and that you want to learn and then do a sport and be in an environment of teammates that you want to be a part of. Because if you don’t want to do it, you’re just not going to do it well.

[00:14:47] Albert: Well, so, speaking of the end of your, NCAA career, really, you decided to forego that final year of eligibility and turn pro. Signed a contract, New Balance, moved to Texas. Talk about that transition. You know, what was it like going from high performing NCAA athlete to then The next level being a professional sprinter? And what were some of the key decisions you had to make to really take your track career to the next level?

[00:15:15] Gabby: You know, that was also a very difficult transition. Any transition, any extreme transition is going to be difficult, right? But that was tough. I didn’t understand what it means to be a pro athlete either. And a lot of people don’t know what it means to be a pro track and field athlete. You only think it’s serious every Olympic year, right? You don’t realize how much goes into it and how much you need to be competing. Because nobody knows how much we’re competing as track athletes. So, and I also had to be very independent. So, in college, your coach is telling you exactly what to do all the time. When you’re a pro athlete, that’s not the case. You are a professional and you were expected to make decisions for yourself. I’m not sure that I had gained that maturity at my first year of being a pro. I ended up learning and figuring it out.

[00:15:51] Gabby: And you just have so much more responsibility. You know, now you have an agent, you have, you know, a team of people that you have to work with. And I was so young, you know, when you go pro after college, you’re still so young. And now you have all of these things to worry about. But the transition at Harvard made it definitely easier.

[00:16:09] Gabby: I was able to continue to train with my Harvard teammates, train with my Harvard coach, and then New Balance is right next door headquartered in Boston. So, it was a very, very natural partnership with them. So that was great. But then I decided that I did want to take my training to the next level and move to train with people who have Olympic medals.

[00:16:27] Gabby: My coach who also had Olympic medals and just warmer weather. It’s easier to sprint in warmer weather, to be honest, you miss a lot less training. My Harvard coach, he couldn’t control that, but so yeah, I moved down figured it out, you know, that very different training regimen.

[00:16:43] Gabby: But it ended up working out for the best and I love my group, I love my coach, and I love my teammates., and I love Austin, Texas. So, once I moved to Texas, everything, you know, went smoothly after the COVID year, we couldn’t compete that year, but after that I just, took it year by year and it’s been great.

[00:16:59] Albert: And so at the U.S. Olympic trials in June of 2021 and of course, it seems weird to say 2021 trials because the Olympics were delayed due to the pandemic. So, your 200 meters time of 21.61 seconds was the second fastest ever, surpassed only by Florence Griffith Joyner’s 1988 world record. Tell us about that moment, how it felt to qualify for the Olympics, you know, how it felt to run such an elite time and, really get to that level?

[00:17:27] Gabby: That moment to me was very surreal. I was training all year, honestly, all two years because of COVID for the Olympic trials. But it just never felt like it was a given to me that I was going to be an Olympian or make the team. I remember my plan after graduating from Harvard was to try to make the Olympics, you know, go move to Texas, go give it what I could, and then after that, go get my master’s in public health and just continue on with the career that I had originally intended to do.

[00:17:54] Gabby: And so, when I actually made the Olympic team, that was an incredible shock for me, [00:18:00] but then to make it and then become a gold medal favorite with my 21.61 time was something beyond my wildest dreams, you know, to make the Olympic team, you have to be top three in your given discipline. And so, I just expected to be in that mix. I didn’t expect to win with that kind of time. That shifted my entire mindset surrounding track. I mean, everything changed within that millisecond. So now I was, yeah, I was going to the Olympics. I was a gold medal favorite. And I knew that I wasn’t going to be retiring anytime soon. I knew that, OK, well, I’m going to go to this Tokyo Olympics and most likely start training for the Paris Olympics soon after.

[00:18:33] Alisha: Gabby, I’m just so fascinated by you for a lot of reasons. And I love how reflective you are about your life and your upbringing and your education. And as an educator, I think there’s a lot to learn about how you were educated and what we can do for other students. So, thanks. It’s great to talk to you. So, I want to continue on this track about the Olympics, which is so incredible. And to hear you say you didn’t even expect that it was going to happen is incredible, but it really just speaks to how hard you work, right.

[00:19:02] Alisha: And that you were able to accomplish this. And so, at the Olympics in Tokyo, you won the bronze medal in the 200 meters, running a time of 21.87. And then three days later, you and Team USA qualify for the finals of the women’s 4×100 meters relay, where you were an anchor, and the team won the silver medal. So, can you talk about what that’s like, being in the Olympics, winning, and receiving Olympic medals, and experiencing winning medals as an individual as part of a relay team?

[00:19:34] Gabby: Yeah. I mean, being in the Olympics was — that was a strange time, I think, for everyone just because it was a COVID Olympics and nobody was there. However, being at the Olympics was a lot of fun. I mean, you train and work so hard to be there. And when you finally are there, you can finally enjoy, you know, all the work that you’ve put in and just being in the village with other athletes that you admire and, seeing some mobiles right across the sidewalk and like, it’s amazing. And just being in that company and the competition of it is also so much fun because right, you’re training all season to be there and now you’re finally here and you can just do what you do. So, the nerves are, you know, you’re still nervous, but it’s just like this really fun, this is what I meant to do type of — And I remember running the race and just think, you know, the 200 final at the Olympics. And I was like, well, I’m here. This is what I’ve worked for. I’m just going to go have fun and give it all I’ve got. And I remember crossing the line and not even being sure if I had medaled because it was, I felt like it was so tight between me and Shelly and Fraser Price.

[00:20:37] Gabby: But then I looked up and they were telling me that I had medaled and come get my American flag and it was, it was unbelievable. I couldn’t, I like, again, I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I was in that position. So yeah, that, that was incredible. And then after that, getting to run on the 4×100 relay. Running on a relay is just so much fun.

[00:20:56] Gabby: Having an individual metal, you have this immense sense of pride and accomplishment. It’s an amazing feeling and no one can take that medal from you, but having a relay medal, it just feels bigger than yourself and you’ve really come together with the team to accomplish something really exciting and really historic and it’s kind of different. They’re both amazing, but having a relay medal just, it is really special, special feeling. And it’s the kind of bond that you have with your teammates and girls that also can’t be taken away.

[00:21:24] Alisha: Yes, quite a very special sorority or fraternity, I’m guessing. Incredible. So, Gabby, another reflection question. You said after the Olympics quote, everything I’ve been working for essentially two years was just over. I won the medals, but it was just still over. And I was like, OK, what do I do now? And so, can you talk about what it was like in terms of the media attention and how you got reacclimated to your life with family, friends, and school once you returned home from the Olympics?

[00:21:57] Gabby: That was a really weird feeling, too, that nobody really talks about is, once you’ve put all that work and you’re on such an emotional high being at the Olympics, and then it is over. Immediately when you come back and you’re kind of left with just a lot of like downtime a lot of people asking about the Olympics and stuff like that. And there’s a lot of media kind of responsibilities. And so, it was a huge shift. For me, in terms of my lifestyle and how I was interacting with everyone around me. And so, yeah, that took some getting used to, definitely. They call it the Olympic crash. just something that people don’t really talk about very much, especially to the media. And so, getting reacclimated with everyone took time. I ended up getting a therapist just because felt like I had gotten to this point in my life where I needed that and trying to maintain some type of normalcy. With my family and friends and trying to stay structured with my school work as well.

[00:23:00] Gabby: Yeah. So yeah, it was a lot to kind of tackle, and it was a lot to go through very abruptly. But I’ve gotten ahold of it. And then I just went through another major championships since last season, and I feel like I’ve kind of gotten it under my belt.

[00:23:13] Alisha: Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that. That’s so important and another great lesson for people. Thank you for that. So, I want to shift because not only are you an Olympic medalist you’re also quite brilliant. And so, I want to talk about your remarkable achievements. Not only as a you are not only a world-class track sprinter, but you’ve also accomplished an enormous amount in your academic work at Harvard, and as you mentioned, just graduated from the University of Texas. And so, can you talk to us about your studies, your research in, neurobiology, epidemiology, public health? Can you talk more about your interest, how you got there and what that work is like for you now?

[00:23:53] Gabby: When I was in high school, knew that I wanted to do neurobiology. I think I was a last semester junior/first semester senior at that point when I had made that decision and I wanted to do research on autism because you know, my little brother has autism and then my twin brother had ADHD  that he was struggling with and with school just made it a lot more difficult for him, and so I know I wanted to do that and I wanted to go to a college that had a good neuro program, fortunately, Harvard worked out and I figured that would be a great neuro program for me.

[00:24:25] Gabby: So, I went to Harvard and I ended up doing neurobiology with a minor in global health and health policy and with a lot of these courses that I was taking, I started taking some of these biology courses and also complementing them with some sociology courses. I started to become increasingly aware about the medical health disparities and specifically race disparities in the healthcare field. I was just mind blown. And at the time it wasn’t something that was kind of at the forefront of the media and what we were talking about. Fortunately, that did come a little bit later. And especially with COVID people started having those discussions more publicly, but that really. Validated my interest in the field and it also validated me going into my master’s program. So, by the time COVID had hit, I had already been accepted into my master’s in epidemiology at UT. That was something that I decided to do before graduating from Harvard as well.

[00:25:18] Gabby: And part of my decision to move to Austin, Texas and train with this group was because I knew that I would get to go to the University of Texas and get my master’s there while I trained for the Olympics. So that was always part of the plan. And it was either going to be Austin or somewhere in L.A. The University of Texas was just a great fit for me, and so I wanted to combat race disparities, and I felt like epidemiology would give me a great foundation for going into that and continuing to do research, and public health was just at the forefront of my mind. It’s what I wanted to do when I finished running, I wanted to go into healthcare administration and be CEO and run a hospital one day and make these changes as I saw fit.

[00:25:55] Gabby: I loved it. I just graduated in May and I did — a lot of my research was actually ended up being on sleep epidemiology. Because that’s something that is very, very important in my life, especially as a pro athlete, but it’s also something that has a huge race disparity. And sleep health is something that really is not talked about. And it’s a huge epidemic in our country and has very, very severe effects on your overall health, long-term health and especially your cardiovascular health and African Americans in our country are being affected by that more prominently than anything else. And that’s also due to, like, lifestyle factors, but also just other things that we’re not looking at.

[00:26:33] Gabby: And so, I just got really into that during my masters, but really, that’s the path and journey that got me into that line of study, and I’ve loved it and I’m really excited about it. And since graduating, I started volunteering at a clinic here in Austin and it provides healthcare services to people who don’t have health insurance or very limited health insurance. So, I have, you know, a set number of patients and cases that I follow just to make sure that they are getting the healthcare services they need. And making sure that they’re keeping up with their appointments and helping them with some lifestyle factors that are within their control. So, it’s really meaningful work and I think it’s a good use of my degree for now until I can retire and continue.

[00:27:15] Alisha: Outstanding. You are just so phenomenal. I’ve got one more question for you. And you mentioned that you just won silver medal in the 200 meters at the World Athletics Championships. Congratulations.

Gabby: Thank you.

Alisha: With a time of 21.81. And so, you also won the gold medal as part of Team USA in the 4×100 meters relay final with a championship record of 41.03 seconds. Amazing. So, would you talk about these achievements as well as your future plans in 2024 Olympics in Paris?

[00:27:51] Gabby: Yeah. So, the world championships this year was really exciting because I actually was injured in 2022. So, coming back in 2023 and getting to run for Team USA again was really important to me. Yeah, sitting out in 2022 was very hard. And a lot of times your comeback season after an injury is really telling and indicative of your future success because injuries can be a huge mental setback for a lot of athletes. And kind of throw off the momentum. So, I mean, this season, this last season was my best one yet. Silver medal at a major championship is great. Great performance for me at the championship and I had a PB at our trials. So, it was really good. And then Team USA, our 4×100 relay was historic. I mean, we had a championship record, and we all came together and worked really well. And I think that bodes well for our Olympics, especially coming and competing against the Jamaican team, which is, known for being amazing.

[00:28:45] Gabby: So it was great and really promising and it’s great momentum going into the Olympic year. So now we’re in 2024, and we’re preparing for the Paris Olympics, and training is going well and I have high expectations for myself. I just plan to keep improving and getting better. And, you know, I did bronze and then I did silver.

[00:29:04] Gabby: So, the goal now is to keep improving and go for a gold. So, I”m loving it. loving track. I’m loving training and competing is going well, so. Yeah, I’m really looking forward to the Paris Olympics.

[00:29:14] Alisha: Incredible. This has been so awesome talking to you. I am personally very excited to see your contributions both in public health and as a pro athlete and an Olympic star. So, thank you, thank you so much for joining us.

[00:29:30] Gabby: Thank you for having me.

[00:29:50] Albert: Great interview, indeed. And now just to wrap up, the Tweet of the Week comes from the Hechinger Report. In this tiny and shrinking Mississippi County, getting a college degree means leaving home behind. And Alisha, this was a fascinating read for me. Actually I don’t know if you’re familiar with the essayist and poet Wendell Berry, but really reminded me about a lot of what he’s written in the past. Really this is an article that talks about this really rural Mississippi County where there’s only 42 adults that have a college degree, and I forget the exact population, I believe there’s over a thousand people, and so we’re talking very, very few people with a college degree, and I think it captures the situation in a lot of our rural areas where we push kids to get into college and really college does give them access to a lot of other opportunities, but, you know, for a lot of these kids who go on to graduate from rural areas there’s not that many opportunities in their hometowns and so they end up leaving and you almost perpetuate this cycle of, these rural communities where there’s really little opportunity. And anyway, it does I think give us a lot of fodder for reflection. What would it look like to have postsecondary education kind of encourage, not just kids leaving their homes behind, but even encouraging them to perhaps even move back and think about how to really enrich that area and, renew their, hometown.

[00:31:12] Albert: So, take a look that read. I know there’s a lot of other complicated issues, particularly in, this county. I mean, with the racial past that’s been there some socioeconomic and business interests. And so, it’s complicated, but caused me to really reflect a lot.

[00:31:26] Alisha: Yeah. And I think it’s important to note, right, that there are communities that have figured this out, right? You get industry involved, you get the school system involved, government involved, and you create a pipeline where young people get a great education in their K-12 system. They go off to college, they come back, they start businesses, right?

[00:31:44] Alisha: You train the people that work there. So, it’s definitely something that can be overcome, but it requires big thinking and vision. And so, my hope is that as these students go off to college, that they will feel that sense of ownership in their community and want to come back. Create some of these [00:32:00] opportunities for those coming behind them.

[00:32:03] Albert: Thank you, Alisha, for joining me this week It’s always great to be with you.

[00:32:08] Alisha: Thank you great to be with you, Albert.

[00:32:10] Albert: Well, anyway, that’s it for this edition of the Learning Curve podcast. Join us next week. We have Jonathan Eig, who’s going to join us and talk about his biography of Martin Luther King. Until then, be well, everybody. Take care.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Prof. Albert Cheng of the University of Arkansas and Alisha Searcy interview Gabby Thomas, a world-class track sprinter and Olympian, originally from the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. She shares her journey from the Williston Northampton School to Harvard, where she balanced neurobiology studies with winning 22 track titles. Transitioning to professional sprinting, she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, winning bronze and silver medals. In addition to track sprinting, Ms. Thomas excels academically, focusing on neurobiology and global public health. She recently graduated from the University of Texas Health Science Center with a master’s degree in epidemiology. After medal-winning performances at the 2023 World Athletics Championships this past summer, Ms. Thomas shares how she’s looking ahead to the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Stories of the Week: Albert comments on a story from New York Post about charter schools improved test scores; Alisha reviews a story in Chalkbeat regarding issues to watch for in 2024.


Gabrielle Thomas is a world-class American track athlete in the 100 and 200 meters sprints. She won the bronze medal in the 200 meters and a silver medal as part of the women’s 4×100 meters relay at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In summer 2023, she claimed the 200 meters silver medal in the World Athletics Championships in Budapest with a time of 21.81 seconds. She would also go on to win the gold as part of Team U.S.A. in the women’s 4×100 meters relay final with a championship record of 41.03 seconds. A graduate of Harvard University, she studied neurobiology and global health as an undergraduate. Thomas recently earned her master’s degree in epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston at their Austin regional campus.


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