Stephen Thibodeau graduated with a BA from UM-Flint History in 1993. Since leaving the university, he’s studied and worked across the country—ending up as an assistant attorney general in Maryland and now serving as an Administrative Law Judge with the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings.
In April 2017, Thibodeau returned to UM-Flint as the keynote speaker for UM-Flint History’s 40th annual induction of its new members to Phi Alpha Theta: the International Honor Society in History. He recalled his own induction, held 24 years prior, “in a small classroom with just 4 other members.” It was quite the contrast to this year’s room full of graduates and their family members.
Thibodeau spoke to the audience about the ways in which his time at UM-Flint and his love of history created both opportunity and appreciation in his life, and how he uses those skills in his career.
Remembering UM-Flint History
“My history degree and my education at UM-Flint really helped in the development of three crucial skills that are essential for any judge, as well as any attorney,” noted Thibodeau. “The first is the ability to inquire, or to ask the right questions. In studying history, you are always asking ‘What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? Who was involved?’ That skill has helped my development as an attorney and a judge.
“The second skill that comes from studying history is the ability to scrutinize the facts as presented, in other words, not to accept a point of view at face value. As a judge, I am constantly tasked with weighing credibility of cases that come before me, and digging deeper to determine if it is the whole story. Studying history prepared me well for that role.
“Finally, in studying history, using the skills of inquiry and scrutiny allows you to explain and illuminate for others what you have discovered. As a judge, a critical part of my job is to synthesize, analyze, and explain my decisions to others, either orally or verbally. That skill came in large part from my history degree and the work I did at UM-Flint.”
When asked about the faculty members that made an impact on his time at UM-Flint, Thibodeau recalled Roy Hanashiro, now Department Chair and Professor in UM-Flint History, and Marueen Thum, Director of the UM-Flint Honors Program.
“Professor Thum was my writing instructor my freshman year in the Honors Program,” he said. “She demonstrated to me for the first time that my writing was better than I thought it was. Her faith in me gave me confidence throughout my life and career to produce written work that stands up to scrutiny of others, but my own stringent standards as well.
“Professor Hanashiro was my History Department mentor, for lack of a better term,” continued Thibodeau. “Without his guidance and advice I would not have gone on to graduate school to get my Master’s Degree in Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He also recommended that I study overseas for a year at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities; something I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to do if I attended another school.”
Dr. Hanashiro remembers Thibodeau as a student. “Stephen was one of those students who left a strong impression on me not only because his was a bright student but also he was very aware of the world around him,” recalled Hanashiro. “Once we were discussing diversity and race issues, and I found a student who was profoundly interested in cultures and histories beyond his own. He made a remark that is still relevant today. He said, ‘You cannot judge an entire group of people based on the actions of the few.’ His intellectual curiosity took him to Japan during his junior year, where he studied at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities. He was among those students who opened the path to study abroad, as it was not common at UM-Flint.”
UM-Flint History now brings travel opportunities to their students each year through the Wyatt Exploration Program: a fully funded study abroad experience for History majors and minors. The UM-Flint Education Abroad Office offers study abroad for all majors.
Education for Life
Although he graduated years ago, the best parts of Thibodeau’s education remain at UM-Flint today: the amenities of a large school and the personal attention of a small institution; engaged learning opportunities; and close relationships with his faculty.
“UM-Flint was unique in the sense it provided the resources of the flagship university of the state of Michigan but with the feel of a small liberal arts college,” noted Thibodeau. “I remember vividly one of my instructors from freshman year asking me at one point why I wasn’t attending school in Ann Arbor. And I told him that I didn’t want to be a number. Friends I knew were taking survey courses with over 200 students, and I had access to my professors on a daily basis, with a pretty much open-door policy. Classes over 50 students were rare.
“One thing I have noticed since the time I’ve graduated is that UM-Flint has only improved in its resources, particularly in its facilities. The ‘new to me’ library and dorms, which have been around for awhile now, didn’t exist when I attended, so that only adds to the value of the university as a whole.”
Thibodeau was able to work at the Sloan Museum his senior year, giving him a new knowledge of and appreciation for Flint. The experience, said Thibodeau, “brought my impending history degree to life. It also illuminated for me the unique story each and every community has to tell, as well as the role it played in the development of our nation.”
Advice for the Future
“Through the study of history and your passion for history you are uniquely situated to understand the human condition more than anyone else,” said Thibodeau in closing his keynote remarks. “Every person and every place has a history.”
“In addition to understanding those tangible skills I mentioned above, which can translate in any number of career opportunities, never forget the intangible phenomenon of your history degree: the ability to uniquely appreciate the human condition and the story behind it.
“I’ve been particularly lucky in my life to have traveled to many parts of the world, and each time I’ve encountered the historic sites of a given country, I’m completely blown away. There is a little chill that runs up my spine because it brings history to life. It’s not something you will get from remembering dates or reading it in a book. History is a living, breathing thing, and your degree gives you a deeper appreciation of that concept. Always remember that, and never let the opportunity go by to explore that concept.”
Thibodeau also had advice for those just entering UM-Flint: “Enjoy your journey. When I attended UM-Flint, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to study or what profession I would ultimately enter. Simply enjoying the experiences and learning as much as I could while at UM-Flint didn’t hinder me in any way. Far from it: it enhanced the experience.
“I didn’t expect to study in Japan, get my Master’s Degree, work on Capitol Hill, go to law school, and ultimately become a judge. I explored those avenues as they came and regret nothing about it. Long story short? Don’t get tunnel vision. Immerse yourself in your education and let life develop along the way.”