He knew early on that an education—even a double major in psychology and political science from Stanford—wouldn't be enough. So Thompson sought out internships in the California legislature and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He spent two years as a teacher in the Bronx with Teach for America. Now, he's a Rhodes Scholar working on a master's in philosophy in evidence-based social interventions at Oxford University.
He has a grounding in theory and ideas but also a desire to make it matter," says Markus, Thompson's undergraduate thesis adviser. "He won't be a more traditional academic. He wants to do interventions and set policy."
Thompson learned about the complexity of social problems early in life, he says. His father, developmental psychologist Russ Thompson, PhD, now at the University of California, Davis, often engaged him in philosophical and political debates.
"My father would take a contrarian's position and argue a topic with me and my brother," says Thompson. "It forced us to figure out how to more rigorously defend our positions, which, in turn, forced us to see how complicated issues are."
Thompson got his first taste of how social scientists research such complex issues as a high school junior, when the Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools nominated him to participate in APA's Pinnacle Project. The program teamed Thompson with Seligman for a yearlong research apprenticeship. Once at Stanford, he paired rigorous training in research psychology with internships that exposed him to real-world policymaking.
Then, as graduation loomed, he decided to postpone graduate studies and join Teach for America to learn more about the people he hoped to help.
"He felt that remaining in academia would leave him unfulfilled and less of a scholar without on-the-ground experience," says Stanford political scientist Robert Reiss, PhD, who recommended the program.
Thompson's time teaching middle and high school in the South Bronx has strengthened his resolve to change national policy, whether it's as part of a nonprofit, in government, as a lobbyist or through research.
"I couldn't turn my back and not focus on issues related to the challenges my students face in school and in their communities," he says. "I want to find solutions that will help them succeed."
By Beth Azar
Beth Azar is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.