After life shipwrecks Jeff Thompson, he finds new direction at CTC, UAF

Jeff Thompson receives his cords and sash during the UAF Honors Program commencement ceremony May 9, 2015, in the Murie Building auditorium. Chancellor Brian Rogers is at left. UAF photo by Todd Paris.

Jeff Thompson didn’t tell people where he lived when he first started school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. After a series of setbacks in his life and his blue-collar career, Thompson had moved into a homeless shelter, the Fairbanks Rescue Mission.

Within two years, though, he had earned an associate degree in paralegal studies, and in spring 2015 he earned a bachelor’s in justice. Today, he’s started his own business as a contract paralegal and feels both surprised and gratified by his success in school.

Yet even greater challenges are ahead for the 54-year-old graduate.

Thompson moved into the Fairbanks Rescue Mission in fall 2009, after “everything snowballed real quickly for me.” 

Thompson had lost his longtime partner, Jamie Kim Kathman, to cancer several years earlier when they lived in the Seattle area. To take care of her, he’d given up a well-paid job as a first mate on ocean-going transport ships to Alaska. Because they’d never been married, his insurance didn’t cover her medical bills, which devastated their finances. After Kathman’s death, he went back to work as a welder, but then his shoulders went bad and he needed rotator cuff surgery before he could continue.

He came to Fairbanks to get away for a bit.

“This wasn’t even close to my best thought-out plan, to come up here,” he said.

While in Fairbanks, though, he heard about the annual Stand Down event, which provides help for veterans. As a young man, he had spent five years in the U.S. Coast Guard before working on the transport ships, so he went to the event at Pioneer Park to see what was offered.

He learned about a Fairbanks Rescue Mission program that helps homeless veterans move back into society. Out of money and facing an uncertain future, he signed up and moved into the mission.

The move proved a fortuitous one. Rodney Gaskin, the mission director, gave Thompson $50 to register for paralegal classes at UAF’s Community and Technical College

“I surprised myself in my first semester, that I did well,” Thompson said. He hadn’t been to school since getting his GED in 1978. “I didn’t know whether I’d be able to succeed at it. There’s a lot of gappage between 1978 and late 2009.”

Two years later, Thompson earned his paralegal degree. In doing so, he worked as an intern twice with Ken Covell, a Fairbanks attorney. He credits Covell with much of his success in understanding the law and persevering in his academic efforts.

Thompson’s excellent grade point average in his paralegal studies qualified him for the honors program at UAF, so he met with Gary Laursen, the director at the time. Laursen talked him into joining the program. 

In addition to doing well in classes, Thompson gained other valuable experiences as he pursued his bachelor’s in justice. A highlight was being selected by Chancellor Brian Rogers to travel to the 2012 Democratic National Convention as a participant in an academic seminar sponsored by The Washington Center, a nonpartisan group that works with both political parties. Thompson ended up working for Steve Kerrigan, the convention CEO, and met several other national political leaders. The Washington Center used his profile, one of only three students featured, in its national brochure for the 2016 convention seminars. 

“These are opportunities that, had it not been for Dr. Laursen, had it not been for Chancellor Rogers, I would have never experienced,” Thompson said.

Now Thompson is facing another challenge. In 2013, he was diagnosed with a chronic, debilitating and irreversible disease, the specifics of which he prefers to keep private. 

Thompson is a full-blooded Te-moak of the Shoshone nation, which is based at a reservation near Elko, Nevada. He was adopted at three weeks by a Caucasian family who lived and ranched in nearby Round Mountain. His racial background, though, makes him of great interest to people studying his disease, so he has signed up for a research program that will probably take him out of the state within a few years.

In the meantime, Thompson hopes to use his UAF training to help people who are caught up in legal troubles at a young age.

“I see myself more as someone who is an advocate for those who don’t have one,” he said. “I don’t want to see people starting out their lives at 18 to 21 with a felony. There have to be different alternatives so they don’t have to carry that weight. 

“It isn’t like back in the ’70s and ’80s when you had a felony. Employers were willing to give someone a chance,” he said. “Today, in 2015, you don’t even get an opportunity to speak to people.” 

As a Native American, he’s particularly interested in helping people of that lineage.

Such thoughts helped him finish his degree after his diagnosis.

“I’ve made mistakes in my life, and I guess my goal is to help them see that these are just mistakes; they’re not a life-ending roadblock,” he said. “So that was my motivation to get my degree.” 

Thompson’s teachers took note of that tenacity. 

“I’ve been tremendously impressed with his desire to earn his bachelor’s degree, and he did so despite many challenges,” said Jeff May, assistant professor in the UAF College of Liberal Arts’ Justice Department. “He’s one of those students who will always stand out to me as really defying the odds. The fact that he hung in there and finished is a real exclamation point on his character.”

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