By Deborah Burstyn
WALNUT CREEK -- Sometimes she thought about quitting. Sometimes she cried. Then she'd tell herself, "I'm going to do this even if it kills me." But she made it through alive and well.
Walnut Creek resident Sheila Thomas, at age 52, just became one of the world's only black female Near Eastern archaeologists. Thomas recently graduated with honors from Mills College in Oakland with an archaeological fellowship. She then took part in a monthlong archaeological dig in Israel where a lot of the ancient artifact action is.
"It is mostly a white-male-dominated profession," Thomas admits. "But everyone's been very welcoming. Yet the academic work was much more rigorous than I anticipated, so I really had to step it up. I want to be judged for my true merit, not for the color of my skin, my gender or my age."
It's that can-do attitude combined with self-discipline that enabled Thomas, during a stint in the Army, to convince her commanding officer to let her take over as master of ceremonies on the Fourth of July when the scheduled guy canceled. The officer initially said no because he didn't want a woman at the microphone, but when Thomas -- a public affairs officer at the time -- succeeded in getting a chance, she shone. She then emceed programs for the rest of her tour of duty, including Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait.
Thomas's determination also helped her earn a black belt in karate after she was out of the Army and working for a bank in Minnesota.
"A friend said I was too old to do it, so it became a dare for me," explains Thomas. "I went to a strict Korean school, so I had to work hard for that black belt. It wasn't given to me."
But nothing had prepared Thomas for the ordeal of going back to college decades after she had earned her first undergraduate degree in her native Detroit.
She'd moved to Walnut Creek at the invitation of her boyfriend, but found herself uncomfortable in the role of housewife and began seeking a new challenge.
"God had given me a mind and I wasn't using it," she recalls. "I needed to do something useful and meaningful."
A lifelong fascination with ancient civilizations prompted her to wonder whether it was too late to change course and try the road not taken in her life. She tested herself by enrolling in anthropology classes at Diablo Valley College and Cal State East Bay and did well.
"I thought, 'OK, I've still got it.' Ha. I really was not prepared for Mills."
She was charmed by the private all-female college. The classic Julia Morgan-designed campus in the Oakland hills felt to her like the scholarly environment she'd longed for. Bolstered with a $10,000 scholarship and an array of student loans, she set forth determined to earn a second undergraduate degree -- her first was in mass communications -- in a year and a half.
"I was surprised to find myself barely dogpaddling," she recalls. "Coming from a communications background, I did not know how to write an academic paper. I had many sleepless nights."
Thomas credits a class designed to assist transfer students with providing her with a lifeline to the skills she needed for academic success. She learned all about critical reading and critical writing.
"A whole world suddenly opened up to me," she says with a smile. "Mills is an extraordinary place. I cannot tell you how hard they pushed me and I am glad they did. Now I am a better thinker, a better person and a mentally younger person. It wasn't easy, but nothing worthwhile is easy."
Thomas hopes that her academic honors and the archaeological dig in Israel will help her get into a Ph.D. program in archaeology.
"What else am I going to do with the time that is left to me? I may as well do something extraordinary."
She plans to do research and teach after she earns her doctorate. The topic that intrigues her is the relatively new area of cognitive archaeology, an offshoot of behavioral anthropology.
"The emphasis has always been on biological evolution. What about cognitive evolution? Who were ancient people and what did they think?" she says. "Our current drive to acquire is destroying who we are and destroying the planet. Where does it come from? Have we always been like this? The globalization of buying, no matter how it affects other people and natural resources, seems to be a new form of colonialism, and I want to explore that."
Thomas paused from thinking about the road ahead to reflect on what she's accomplished.
"The odds of me going back to school were stacked against me. I didn't have the money. I didn't have the academic background. A lot of people were not behind me and did not believe I could do it," she said. "Now they are listening to my philosophy in life that it is possible to change your circumstances. A person can recreate themselves. I have proven that you can do that."