Two males students working together with others in the background

Pass the Torch

Honoring Jean Thomas

Portrait of Pass the Torch Founder and Counselor

By Lily Adams and Victoria Taketa


These words written by Jean Thomas personified her philosophy of education to empower students to reach their full potential. She lived each day passionately fulfilling this credo.

“To believe that one can be academically successful is the right that every student should enjoy….”

- Jean Thomas


Jean Delores Thomas was born in Mobile, Alabama. Her father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She moved to San Francisco at age 14 to live with her sister and attended Girls High School. After graduation she enrolled at San Francisco State University to major in Social Studies and minor in English.

She graduated at age 19 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After a year, she returned to SFSU to earn a teaching credential in social studies and English. Next she attended Southern Illinois University to complete an M.S. degree in Education; and later added a double major in Guidance and Counseling. She earned a doctorate in Education from the University of California, Santa Barbara

Jean ThomasJean had a second career and passion; that was music. She has been a vocal musician all of her adult life. At one point in her musical career, she was employed by the First Baptist Church in Menlo Park as its contralto soloist, and sang in various choirs throughout the Bay Area.

Her interest in working with Black youths led her to work as a vocational guidance counselor for 2 years with the St. Louis Urban League, where she disseminated information to high school counselors regarding job opportunities for Black students. Through the Urban League, she developed a program called “Tomorrow’s Scientists and Technicians” in several high schools. She designed the incentive program for Black students who demonstrated potential for science careers. The program was nationally advertised through the National Urban League and her proposal won the second place award in the national competition. This was a precursor to her vision to programs to help Blacks and other underrepresented students complete their education and pursue professional careers.

To use her words, Jean said: “I have always wanted to be a part of the success of underrepresented students. I use my counseling background to achieve this.”

After completing her master’s degree, Jean worked as a high school counselor for nine years at Beaumont and Overfelt High Schools in San Jose. Aside from being a general counselor, Jean developed her interest in helping potential high school drop-outs, who were in the Ford Foundation Work Study Program. She founded and coordinated various Black History classes and Black Culture Week activities at Overfelt High School in San Jose.

Jean’s transition from high school to Foothill College as a counseling professional was fueled by her desire to find a position and institution that would support her views regarding underrepresented minority students and educational success.

In her application to Foothill, she summarized her vision in these words:

“I am very interested in the Multicultural Program at Foothill. I am impressed by the people, and its staff, and like the genuine multi-cultural philosophy on which it operates. I also like the idea of beginning a program – based upon people, rather than setting up a program and shaping (students) to it.”

Jean was a Counselor at Foothill College from 1969 until her passing on, June 15, 2005. It is here at Foothill that she rounded out her philosophy on counseling with a two dimensional priority to carry out her role: To be as accessible to and effective with all students as any general counselor, and especially, to carry out a unique role in the achievement of underrepresented minorities.

In keeping with her unique role, Jean co-founded the Minority Transfer Program, which celebrated the achievements of minority students graduating and transferring from Foothill.

While at Foothill, Jean saw the importance of the issues of access and retention for underrepresented students. She stated that “access and retention cover a broad spectrum which cannot be addressed in totality with one individual’s role. Thus, I have chosen to express my bias by focusing on what the institution can do to enhance how these students see themselves as achievers…Thus, the institution must be willing to develop the enhancers that will make these students feel esteemed by the institution because they are working against a long history of low expectations.”

From her position of purpose, Jean was an educator who did not let her limitations as one individual stand in the way of improving how underrepresented minorities saw their potential. Following this premise, she went on to found professional programs and services to assist in the academic success of underrepresented minority students.

The blending of her multicultural philosophy in education and her desire to foster the success of underrepresented students culminated in the creation of the “Pass the Torch” Program. When we talk about the “Pass the Torch” program, we honor Jean’s spirit.

Jean founded the “Pass the Torch” Program in 1994. This program was her baby from inception, to development, to implementation, to institutionalization. In 2002, “Pass the Torch” pioneered as a community college program that has now been adopted by four year universities, and is exclusively designed for community college transfer students after they transfer to these institutions. It brought her vision to a crowning fruition.

“Pass the Torch” is a unique program funded by the Community College Chancellor’s Underrepresented Students Special Fund Grant, and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). It represents a collaborative effort carried out by instructors, students (both leaders and members) and a team of dedicated classified staff. Jean described it as such “Students are teamed with a student with whom they would have had no real contact otherwise. Now they’re supporting one another to make their teams a success…As one student said of his team member: … ‘Despite our differences, we were able to communicate’. To have been instrumental in the setting that allows this student from Hong Kong to say this about an African American male is very satisfying and it epitomizes my professional ambition.”

This brings me back to the introductory quote “To believe that one can be academically successful is the right that every student should enjoy…”

This was Jean Thomas, her life, her love, her home, her Foothill students and her legacy.


Can We Spare Some Change

Grassroots DigestLearn more about artist Milton Bowens and his exhibition "Can We Spare Some Change" by downloading the catalog.  Dr. Thomas's portrait painting is one of many persons of historical significance featured in the publication.



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