September 29, 2014

Student Feature

2L Explores Passion for Education with Dual-Degree

Christopher Thomas

While many law students spend the majority of their time exclusively in Drinko Hall, 2L Chris Thomas sees a great deal of The Ohio State University each week, splitting his time between the South Campus law building and North Campus education building.

Thomas is a dual-degree candidate seeking both his J.D. and a Ph.D. in education simultaneously.

Although neither pursuit is considered easy by any standard, Thomas says he decided to take the challenge to better position himself for a career in education after graduation.

“When I was making the decision to come back to school to get another degree it kind of came down to what were the skills and what was the outcome I wanted from this degree? So I chose to enroll in law first because of the practical skills and the practical application of those skills that degree would give me. To be able to make a concrete difference in the lives of individuals while also working within the system of laws itself,” he said. “Then I came to the conclusion that this is all great, but I wanted to both give myself the benefit of studying education in-depth through the Ph.D., but also to communicate to everyone else that education is where I’m going to make my mark.”

Although Thomas is just beginning his path into the dual-degree program, he has already decided on a focus area for his Ph.D., one he says will tie nicely in with his legal studies. Thomas will be studying students’ rights to and within education, looking at both access to education as well as students’ rights within education – what constitutional and fundamental rights do students have within the school and how does the school environment transform those rights.

“I had a fantastic education, that’s where my love of education stems from, but I saw not everyone is offered that same opportunity and too often those opportunities are denied to students based on geographic locations, or things that are beyond a student’s control. So I wanted to focus on ensuring that everyone has the same or a better opportunity for education than I did,” he said.

After being admitted to the dual-degree program, Thomas began looking for summer opportunities for his 1L summer where he could gain experience with education law. He applied and was awarded an externship with the Department of Education, Office of General Counsel through the Moritz Washington D.C. Summer Program.

Through his externship, Thomas was able to gain experience working on a number of important projects affecting educational outcomes for students across the country. The first was a $250 million pre-school development grant competition, which Thomas said was an excellent opportunity to learn about the interaction between law and policy.

Another was a response to a United Nations interpretation of a particular clause in a treaty discussing the habeas corpus rights of students.

“The clause basically said that the rights of habeas corpus extended to students detained for educational purposes. And we were trying to decide whether or not that meant that people in, for example, the Breakfast Club, in detention or Saturday school, have habeas corpus rights,” Thomas explained.

As an intern, Thomas was asked to help analyze the interpretation and come to a conclusion on what it meant for students in the U.S. He was asked to write a memo on the topic, part of which ultimately ended up in the official U.S. response to the U.N.’s interpretation.

“I proposed some language for the U.S. response to the United Nations, and a bit of my language ended up in the U.S. response. It was one sentence, but it was still a really cool experience working with the deputy general counsel and bouncing ideas back and forth. It was great to be on the front lines, thinking about these issues,” Thomas said.

Following his return to Ohio State, Thomas, who also serves as the executive director of the Education Law Society, learned he had won The Ohio State University Marian Wright Edelman Award for his commitment to diversity and equality in education. Professor Charles Wilson nominated him for the award.

“I was really touched that Professor Wilson had thought of that. I hadn’t had him for class before this year, he just knew me through the Education Law Society. It was really an honor and very touching that he would think to nominate me,” Thomas said.

Looking to the future Thomas said he isn’t sure exactly where he seems himself after graduation. He may end up in academics, continuing to study the field of education while sharing what he’s learned with a new generation of students, or he could see himself practicing education law for a firm or government agency.

For now though he plans to continue working toward his dual-degree – a pursuit made easier by the support and knowledge of the staff and faculty at both Moritz and the College of Education.

“Throughout the entire process the administration here was so supportive. They help me navigate all of the interesting paperwork that goes along with declaring a dual-degree. Specifically Dean Monte Smith was invaluable in helping me get it all put together,” Thomas said.

For those considering the dual-degree program, Thomas said the one piece of advice he would give is to be flexible and to work closely with the dual-degree faculty.

“I’ve learned that being proactive and talking to both the law school deans and the deans of whatever program you’re applying to, especially if you’re going down an unmarked route, and being flexible and responsive to all of the administrative challenges that go into that is a huge help,” he said.

Discovery is an internal weekly electronic newsletter for the faculty, staff, and students of the Moritz College of Law. Items to be considered for posting should be submitted to Barbara Peck, Chief Communications Officer, by the Wednesday prior to the Monday release of the newsletter. Items are subject to editing for content and brevity.