Jeremy Thomas ’21 “They are leaders already.” That’s part of how the Rhodes Trust describes the 32 U.S. students to whom it has recently awarded scholarships to the University of Oxford, among the most competitive and prestigious scholarships in the world. And it’s undeniably true of Jeremy Thomas ’21, whose Rhodes Scholarship—through which he will study criminal justice and social policy—comes after years of leadership within and beyond the Amherst College community. 

In addition to double-majoring in English and law, jurisprudence and social thought, Thomas has been a campus tour guide, a resident counselor, an alumni liaison in the Black Student Union, captain of the mock trial team and president of the Association of Amherst Students.

“A Rhodes Scholar should be committed to make a strong difference for good in the world, be concerned for the welfare of others, and be acutely conscious of inequities,” the trust goes on to say. Thomas fits this bill as well. For one thing, he’s a founding student director of Amherst’s Office of Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For another, he wrote his Rhodes application essay about his summer 2019 internship with the Southern Center for Human Rights, during which he represented an incarcerated man at a parole hearing just a week before the death of Thomas’ own grandfather, who had also spent time in jail (because the arresting officer  mistook him for someone else) and had taught his grandson about racism and injustice.

“I have witnessed the law’s ugliness reflected in its instrumental brutalization, and also how we may salvage its hope, justice, and mercy,” Thomas wrote. He plans to spend his first year at Oxford earning an M.Sc. in criminal justice and criminology, in order to “better understand legal relations and convert scholarship into legal challenges to overturn mass incarceration.” In the second year, pursuing an M.Sc. in comparative social policy, he “will study ways we might expand restorative and transformative processes for accountability and think comprehensively about remedying harm, ameliorating violence, and imagining—demanding—a better future.”

Thomas’s criminal justice work has already included collaborating with Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, and with his Amherst peers, to research and write the article “Innocence is Not Enough: The Public Life of Death Row Exonerations.” “He pushed me and his other collaborators to go the extra distance to make sure that we got things right,” Sarat says. “And he showed great leadership qualities in listening and guiding the other students with whom we worked. I admire Jeremy greatly.”

Allen Hart ’82, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of Psychology and faculty equity and inclusion officer, feels the same way: “Jeremy excels as both leader and teammate. He has the rare ability to lead from within the group as well as from the front.” Hart has worked with Thomas, among others, to develop Amherst’s first-ever Bias Reporting Protocol. “There is no doubt in my mind that this initiative would not have gotten off the ground, and certainly would not have succeeded, without Jeremy’s unwavering advocacy.”

Adam Sitze, the John E. Kirkpatrick 1951 Professor in Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, has taught Thomas in his courses “Introduction to Legal Theory” and “Apartheid” and is now his senior thesis adviser. “Jeremy already conducts himself more like a graduate student than the undergraduate he still is,” Sitze says. “Jeremy has a voracious appetite for literature, argument, theory, law, psychoanalysis, history—anything. Before COVID-19 hit, he was to the library what a kid is to a candy store.”

Thomas is Amherst’s first U.S. Rhodes Scholar since Daniel Altschuler ’04 received the scholarship in 2006. Sebabatso Manoeli ’11 was named a Rhodes Scholar for Southern Africa in 2011, and Itai Muzhingi ’18 was chosen as a Rhodes Scholar for Zimbabwe in 2018.

This year’s 32 U.S. Rhodes Scholars were chosen from a pool of more than 2,000 applicants, 953 of whom were endorsed by 288 colleges and universities in 16 districts across the country. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that, for the first time in the award’s history, the applicant interviews and final selection process took place virtually rather than in person.

Thomas counted as a Massachusetts applicant, but he’s been studying remotely this fall from his family’s home in Missouri City, Texas, where he completed the Rhodes application process. “I texted my parents moments after I found out I won, and I could hear my dad shout from downstairs,” he says. “My mom laughed, my brother was a bit overwhelmed too, and my sister asked, ‘Didn’t you win that already?’”