‘You can be a point of inspiration’: Rich Thompson shares values, career journey


The College of William and Mary’s Office of Community Engagement (OCE) has been in action for over 20 years, with goals to inspire students to become better leaders and to create strong relationships within the Williamsburg community. The OCE operates programs including Branch Out alternative breaks, partnerships with Williamsburg Engagement and educational programs for pre-K-12 children in the Williamsburg community. The OCE wears a lot of hats, and so does its associate director Rich Thompson, who started the role in 2019 after working at the College since 1999. 

“I really saw it as an opportunity to enhance the student experience and how to potentially bring more students in to be involved, and to be leaders, to be civic leaders,” Thompson said. “That was such a huge draw to me, and I kind of jumped in blind.”

Thompson grew up outside of Richmond and received a degree in Parks and Recreation Management from Western Carolina University in North Carolina as a first-generation college student. Following his graduation, Thompson worked for Residence Life at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and later in Student Affairs at Bridgewater College in the Shenandoah Valley. After some encouragement from the Bridgewater College dean of students, Thompson received his master’s degree in Student Union Administration from Western Illinois University and finished his professional study at the University of Richmond. Ultimately, Thompson ended up working for the College in 1999, and has not left since. 

“Each of my mentors spoke so highly of William and Mary,” Thompson said. “The biggest thing, which I remember and has proven to be so true, they both said it’s the students. They said the students will challenge you in the best way possible to bring your best every day.”

“Each of my mentors spoke so highly of William and Mary,” Thompson said. “The biggest thing, which I remember and has proven to be so true, they both said it’s the students. They said the students will challenge you in the best way possible to bring your best every day.”

When Thompson first arrived at the College, he joined the faculty as the associate director of the Sadler Center, continuing in that role for 19 years. In July 2019, Thompson transitioned into his current role at the OCE. 

Currently, the OCE works with six community partners, including the House of Mercy, Williamsburg Community Growers, Dream Catchers Therapeutic Riding Center, Heritage Humane Society, Grove Christian Outreach Center and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Thompson emphasized the importance of connecting with students while in his role at the OCE and his passion in helping them cultivate their leadership skills, including through the OCE Team Leader program. 

To Thompson, engagement within the community would not be as successful without a student-centered perspective. 

“The Team Leader program explored, ‘What does it mean to be an empathetic leader in society? What does it mean to be an ethical leader in society? What does it mean to be a steward?’ Leaders are all these different little pillars. Buy-in occurs through role modeling and constant awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, and capitalizing on your strengths but also acknowledging you have weaknesses,” he said.

Thompson believes that working with the greater Williamsburg community has allowed students to recognize various disparities in the community and to observe that space in a different light. 

“It gives a chance to see something different, or a chance just to get beyond the boundaries of campus itself and learn in the community differently,” he said. “They get to work hand in hand with volunteers, they learn their stories and they motivate them to bring their best, just like the students motivate me to bring my best.”

Thompson encourages students to break outside of their comfort zones and to surround themselves with people who are different from themselves. 

“I think it’s important to push our boundaries, because [if not] we really don’t grow, and we really don’t develop understanding,” Thompson said. “Try to build teams of people that are not like you. You don’t want everyone to be a cookie cutter. I think that’s an inherent human quality, we want to be around people that are like me and think like me all the time. But that’s not what really great teams are made of.”

Outside of the OCE, Thompson also works as an advisor for the College’s Voter Engagement Program, which aims to boost student voter registration and turnout. 

“All of our work is nonpartisan, and that’s one of my roles to make sure we stay on that track,” Thompson said. “But once again, the work I do is for the students, and the students make it happen. I’m just a sounding board or a guidepost.”

Along with this role, Thompson serves as committee chair for two awards presented by the College, including the President’s Award for Service to the Community which is granted to both students and faculty and recognized at convocation, and the James Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership, awarded on the College’s Charter Day. Thompson was a recipient of the President’s Award in 2011. 

“It gives me great moments of pride when I let someone know that they are this year’s recipient, because the excitement, enthusiasm and just their applications are just amazing when you see all the depth that is from the community, from our faculty, staff and our students,” Thompson said. “We are the alma mater of the nation, we set standards, we are leaders now and in the future.”

Thompson also acts as co-administrator for the College Bike Alliance and was appointed by the President’s Office as the College’s representative for the Historic Triangle Bicycle Advisory Committee in 2007. Thompson mentioned that he began taking cycling more seriously when he started working for the College, often riding his bike multiple miles to work. 


“Really it’s a means to connect with the community,” Thompson said. “Some students in that program have gone on to careers in active transportation and it just blows me away.”

Through cycling, Thompson felt a stronger bond with the community around him, as well as the health and wellness benefits.

“I was getting fitter and stronger, and I realized I was getting more positive,” Thompson said. “I’m not separated by glass and metal, and it created more connectivity to people. And I got to explore the community and learn different things. I see things that most people don’t know when I’m on the bike, and I started sharing with some students who wanted to start this initiative, and they got into it too.”

Thompson mentioned that the Bike Alliance now teaches clinics on cycling, best practices, road safety, introductory cycling courses and group rides. The Alliance has also invited speakers such as cyclist, activist, author and filmmaker Kathryn Bertine, and former professional cyclist Jonathan Vaughters. 

“We try to bring in speakers that are inspirational, of course, but that really talk about the concept of ethics and leadership,” Thompson said. “We’re presenting opportunities for students to discover themselves and what they can be more than just right now, but beyond.”

Thompson recalled his participation in the 2010 Gran Fondo cycling event in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. The event is 122 kilometers, or about 75 miles, from Vancouver to the town of Whistler. 

“British Columbia was kind of a bucket list item,” Thompson said. “It was a very cool event.”

The health and wellness he has found through cycling has become a primary value for Thompson, also showcased through his role on the Healthy Campus Coalition created in 2020. 

“I think William and Mary is becoming a leader in that initiative,” Thompson said. “I take a lot of pride in being associated with it.”

“I think William and Mary is becoming a leader in that initiative,” Thompson said. “I take a lot of pride in being associated with it.”

Thompson believes that as long as he feels he has a purpose and value within the community, he will continue to thrive at the College. 

“I go back to this uniqueness about William and Mary and the culture here. I get challenged, I feel valued, I have a family in a way,” Thompson said. “I don’t have any living family, but I have family here. It’s cultivated. I can be out on William and Mary’s campus, but less than three miles away I can be out in nature and woods and discover things that make me feel good.”

Outside of the College environment, Thompson expressed his love for studying history, his baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, his Shetland Sheepdog, Shadow and his passion for all things Star Trek. 

“Star Trek was so impactful for me when I was a kid, and it still is today,” Thompson said. “We did a thing called Trek Talks where we would review certain Star Trek episodes and how they relate to inequity or justice issues in society.”

Thompson expressed that if he could tell students anything, it would be to value college experiences, inspire others and discover the kind of leaders they can be. 

“For me, my college experience was the most impactful turning point in my life,” Thompson said. “More importantly, you can be a point of inspiration for others and you can make a difference and you can be a leader. There’s different types of leaders that we touched on, you don’t have to be out in the front cheer section cheering on, but you can be that person behind the scenes who sets other people up for success. There’s a lot of reward in that.”

Thompson also expressed the importance of having fun and curiosity along the way. 

“Have some fun along the way, because if you don’t have fun, it gets boring,” Thompson said. “And also fun is so important about being balanced. Fun equals spark and zest, and also it promotes curiosity. And the curious really discover the most amazing things.”


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