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Meet commencement speaker Olivia Thomas

Boise State commencement speaker Olivia Thomas, Albertsons Library. Thomas shared advice for students just beginning their college careers at Boise State. “There’s so much opportunity here. I did a lot, but think even I didn’t realize the possibilities. We’re large enough that you can find a group, a research project that interests you. But we’re small enough that it’s all accessible.” John Kelly photo.

From the time she was a young student at the Idaho Virtual Academy, Olivia Thomas knew she wanted to invent video games – in particular, games with an educational focus. She read her first book on coding when she was 10. Her interest in technology only grew through high school. In her senior year at the academy, she searched the country for video game design programs. It happened that Boise State’s Games, Interactive Media and Mobile program (GIMM) had welcomed its first class the year before.

“GIMM was there. It was exactly what I wanted to do, and it was in my own back yard,” said Thomas, who grew up in a house just minutes from campus.

Thomas leaves Boise State with a double major in GIMM and computer science.

“I wanted to see which subject I liked better, but I liked them both and couldn’t give one up,” Thomas said. “Both are about coding and development, but from different angles. I learned project management and design skills in GIMM and technical skills in computer science.”

In coming to Boise State, Thomas said she wanted to “make stuff that was useful for people.” So she channeled her talents into projects like Bronco Beam, a GPS-beacon system she developed with fellow GIMM students that alerts students with food insecurities when leftover food is available on campus.

“With so many students experiencing food insecurity (close to 40 percent of students, according to one survey), I can’t think of a use of technology more impactful for the Bronco community,” said Anthony Ellertson, director of the GIMM program.

Boise State commencement speaker Olivia Thomas, Albertsons Library, John Kelly photo.

Thomas was also a member of Boise State’s NASA Spacesuit User Interface Technology for Students (SUITS) team working to develop technology for use in next-generation space suits. She is a Top Ten Scholar, and has maintained a 4.0 GPA.

Thomas said her family has been a great support. Her dad, Peter, was studying for his master’s degree at Boise State when she was a child. He’s now an English professor at Treasure Valley Community College and at Mountain Home Air Force Base. Thomas’ mom, Trish, a student support advisor at Idaho Virtual Academy, gave Thomas lots of educational games to play as a small child, encouraging her early interest in games and technology. Thomas is also close to her younger sister, Lauren. The sisters play music together – Thomas plays piano, her sister plays classical guitar.

Thomas reflected on her Boise State experience.

“I’ve realized that when I came to college, I thought that at some point I would know what I’m doing. Instead, I learned that you never really know. Because I’m working with technologies that are changing all of the time. So it’s about adapting instead of having a mindset that you know everything. I’ve learned that you just start a project, and figure things out.”

In August, Thomas begins a new job as a program manager at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington.

Faculty words of praise

Kelly Myers, interim associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, wrote a letter supporting Thomas as a commencement speaker.

Myers wrote:

“While Olivia demonstrates clear expertise in STEM fields, she also embodies the creative and critical mindset of a scholar in the humanities. There is a unique fluency to her language – whether she writing a computer program or a poetic speech…Olivia helps us see that we don’t need to create false dichotomies or boundaries between disciplines; instead, we can thrive in the spaces that unite us.”

Krishna Pakala, an assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, advised Thomas as she wrote her commencement speech – one in which she references poets Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot and painter Pablo Picasso. He praised Thomas’ academic achievements, but also her focus on community, and work on projects, like Bronco Beam, that can live on campus, helping people, after she’s graduated.

Thomas counts Anthony Ellertson as a mentor.

“He’s doing amazing things with the program, rethinking how technology should interact with our lives. He’s one of the reasons my college experience has been so amazing,” Thomas said.

Ellertson said he met Thomas just before she came to Boise State. He knew she was an exceptional student. “But what I didn’t know at the time was what an exceptional person she is as well,” Ellertson said. Thomas quickly became a natural leader among her fellow students, he added.

Bronco BEAM team photo, from left to right: Issiac Torrero, Tyler Chapman, Olivia Thomas, Rich Weigel not pictured, was also a team member, Allison Corona photo

He asked Thomas to become a peer mentor during her sophomore year. In that role, Thomas worked well past her assigned hours to help first-year students. Thomas later joined the GIMM Works student development team, the branch of GIMM that takes on funded projects. Thomas became lead senior developer, managing a group of as many as 26 students working on three to four projects at one time.

“Olivia is the kind of leader who lifts people up and helps them reach their potential. She cares about the world and uses her many gifts to help make it a better place,” Ellertson said.