Running a New Course
Feb. 9, 2007
When Rose Chepyator-Thomson was a young girl growing up in Singore, Kenya, her father told her that, in terms of her education, she should "go until she couldn't go anymore."
Thomson took that suggestion and literally ran with it.
At age 25, Thomson trekked across the Atlantic Ocean, leaving behind the warm plains of Kenya in favor of the rolling hills of Wisconsin, to begin her ongoing career in higher education.
At the University of Wisconsin, Thomson saw great success both on the track and in the classroom.
"Track-wise, I had my best experiences running while representing Wisconsin," Thomson said. "I ran my best time ever running for Wisconsin."
While at the UW, Thomson set national Kenyan records in the 1,500- and 3,000-meter runs, also setting school records in those categories as well as the mile. Thomson was also an NCAA Champion in the 1,500-meter outdoor run in 1982 and was part of Wisconsin's national champion two-mile relay team in 1983. Thomson was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994.
But her success goes even further than any distance she has ever run.
"Academic-wise, it was outstanding for me," Thomson said. "[Wisconsin] prepared me for the global environment because I can now participate by writing about athletics -- runners in particular."
The widely published Thomson also noted that by taking a wide range of courses - from sociology to music to chemistry - she was fully prepared to enter the scholarly world.
Upon the completion of her undergraduate degree in 1983, Thomson was awarded the Big Ten Medal of Honor, recognizing her for athletic and academic proficiency. Thomson also received a post-graduate scholarship from the NCAA, which she used to help further her career in higher learning.
But Thomson's experiences at Wisconsin were strikingly different compared to those of most other successful student-athletes.
While she did enjoy the campus life - sitting on the Memorial Union Terrace, looking out at Lake Mendota while doing her homework - she also went home every night to a husband and two sons.
"You had to be well organized," Thomson said. "Time management was key. I'd get up at 6 a.m. and go for a 45-minute run, come back and get breakfast. Then I'd run to school, have track training from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and then I'd come back home or go to the library around 8 p.m., with hopes of being back by midnight."
Though she received unfaltering support from her husband in her athletic and academic endeavors, Thomson still faced strong disapproval from the Kenyan and American cultures when she chose to continue running even after she had a family.
Thomson states that in Kenya, women's power comes from their ability to raise children, helping to shape the landscape of the future. By choosing to run, she was not only surrendering that power, but also taking awards away from the younger generation of Kenyan runners.
"People saw the negative point of view and I said, `Yes, you can [have a family] and you can also venture into other areas of society, particularly globally," Thomson said. "It was really hard for people to understand that. People said I was robbing young girls of their awards. It was really rough at that age."
However, Thomson was surprised to find that this type of reaction crossed national borders.
"In Madison, the interesting thing was that it was totally unheard of for a married woman to be able to participate," Thomson said. "I faced the same resistance that I faced in Kenya in that aspect. I remember running at the Big Ten meet at Michigan State and people were saying, `You shouldn't be running, you're a mother!'"
But amidst the critics, Thomson's father stood out as the consummate supporter and fan.
"The socialization that he provided to his children was that they should go wherever they want," Thomson said. "One brother went into economics at UW-Madison; another brother went into civil service. My father believed that it prepared us in different ways to go out in the world and make change."
And Thomson did make a difference.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, Thomson remained at the University of Wisconsin to get two master's degrees - one in education and policy studies, and another in physical education - before receiving her doctorate in physical education.
"My most memorable experience at Wisconsin was [then-University Chancellor] Donna Shalala shaking my hand when I got my Ph.D. - that capped my experience."
In attaining her doctorate., it would seem as though Thomson had taken her father's advice and gone as far as she could go with her education.
"It's like when you cross a river and there's a lot of muck, but you have to keep moving until you can't move anymore," Thomson said of her father's words. "Or it's like plowing through snow and you go until the snow builds up and you can't go anymore."
But Thomson has since broken through the muck or the snow and has kept moving on in higher education - no longer as a student in a classroom, but now as a professor at the University of Georgia.
At Georgia, Thomson became the perfect example of Kenya's idea of female empowerment by helping to mold the minds of eager students across the globe.
"I've taught a diversity of courses in higher education and I have directed students from Asia - China and South Korea in particular, as well as students from North America, so I have been able to help prepare scholars as well," Thomson said.
Through her dedication to education, Thomson is making change on a global scale not only as a teacher, but also as a researcher. She is bringing to light issues on athletic globalization, particularly those faced by Kenyan runners and the role they play in the worldwide running community.
"As teachers, as professors, as coaches, we are instruments of change," Thomson said. "We have changed society to improve, to make it better for all of us in the global environment and particularly for women - showing that women can make it in society."
Given this philosophy, it comes as no surprise that global awareness runs in Thomson's family.
Thomson's husband, Norman, was a Peace Corps volunteer and was working as a biology teacher in Kenya when the two met. Currently, he is an education professor at Georgia.
Thomson's brother, Fred Chepyator, also ran track with the Badgers from 1986-1989, and received his undergrad and master's degrees from Wisconsin.
Additionally, Thomson's two oldest sons, Jonathan Kiplaget Thomson and Patrick Kimutai Thomson, both work for Goldman Sachs, a global investment banking and securities agency, while her youngest, Kipruto Thomson, is still examining all his options at age 12. Thomson hopes he will consider following in her footsteps at Wisconsin.
"The only thing I can say about Wisconsin is that when you say Wisconsin, you've said it all," Thomson said, quoting one of the school's most popular fight songs. "It's an outstanding institution. I had the best professors and I really enjoyed the classes at the University."
Thompson also is quick to point out that she got back what she put in to her college experience.
"I gave UW-Madison my everything in terms of athletics," Thomson said. "And in turn, Wisconsin gave me everything in terms of education."
Coming from someone who makes her living as an educator, that certainly says it all.