By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

Tristan Thompson ’13

The very moment Bryan Washington—late associate professor emeritus of English—entered the classroom for his Black Writers course in 2011, then-Lafayette student Tristan Thompson ’13 had a revelation: He wanted to be an educator. 

“I hadn’t had many Black teachers, especially at the higher ed level,” Thompson says. “And whenever Prof. Washington walked into the room, he commanded attention. He had so much energy. He dressed well. He was smart. He was a Black intellectual. And I thought to myself, ‘I may not know exactly what I want to do after college, but I know I want to do that.’ I wanted to teach, to be in front of people, to engage in text and hold meaningful discourse.”

Today, as academic dean at DREAM Charter School in New York City’s Harlem, Thompson stands in front of his own audience, coaching high school teachers on topics like managing a classroom, creating engaging learning environments, and developing skills in students to help them grow into lifelong learners. “My goal is to help teachers and students use academia as a tool to enrich their own lives and the lives of people in their communities, and to make the changes they want to see in the world,” he says. 

Thompson previously served as dean of students at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School, and he taught English at Ascend as well as Westside High School in Jacksonville, Fla. Having taught in two different cities, he says, has made him realize that young students, especially teenagers, are all grappling with the same challenge, no matter where they live: navigating the world around them and figuring out their place in it. Thompson says he uses his own experiences as a student to not only guide high schoolers through this formative time, but also empower teachers to inspire a love for learning in the hearts and minds of their students.

“I enjoy remembering who I was at that age and how much I depended on the people around me to mold me into the person I am now, and being that for the young people and the teachers around me,” Thompson says. “That’s what I love about my job—connecting with people and being there for them like others were there for me.” 

It was a true alignment of the stars—a combination of the network he built at Lafayette and several fortuitous events that took place during his time there—that illuminated Thompson’s path to his present-day career. His original plan upon arriving at the College was to study architectural engineering, but he soon realized his heart wasn’t in it. While taking courses like Washington’s as well as others—including Philosophy of Law with George Panichas (James Renwich Hogg Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, emeritus) and Yaba Blay (former visiting assistant professor of Africana studies)—Thompson’s view of his future came into better focus, and he decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a minor in Africana studies. 

“I was challenged, and I was forced to think outside of the normal realms I was used to,” he says. “I was enamored and amazed by the information, and just being able to learn about myself and see myself in the fabric of the courses. Lafayette has amazing teachers.”

Thompson participated in various Lafayette organizations and programs outside the classroom as well—most notably, he was a Posse Scholar. 

“Getting involved in different organizations on campus allowed me to collide with people who may not have been from where I was from, who didn’t necessarily have the same outlook on life that I had,” Thompson says. “It created a space for us to have conversations, exchange ideas, critically think, and problem-solve.”

And the connections he built with fellow Posse Scholars have withstood the test of time: “All of my best friends are from Posse, which is as much a part of my life now as it was back then. They were and are my support system. We’re spread out all over the country now, but we’re always traveling to see each other for occasions like weddings and baby showers. I also don’t know who I’d be without my Posse mentor, Gary Gordon, who welcomed me with open arms and made sure I was taken care of. I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of an amazing group of people.” 

One of the most influential moments of Thompson’s Lafayette experience, however, happened when he was studying abroad for six months in South Africa during his senior year. While he was there studying multiculturalism and human rights, Thompson realized his calling was to work with children, specifically at the high school level: “I saw how easy it was for me to hold conversations with kids within the communities that I stayed in, and they trusted me and spoke their truth to me. In high school, I was the kid who slipped under the radar and just got by. The work didn’t come hard to me. But it took a community of individuals in my high school who saw me for who I was to push myself to be better and not settle for mediocrity. So, it was when I was in South Africa that the light bulb went off, and I said I’m going to teach high school, and I’m going to teach English because it was my favorite class in high school. But I had to figure out how to get into teaching, because I had no road map at the time.”

As luck would have it, during that very same time, Teach For America recruiters were visiting the Lafayette campus in search of individuals who were interested in pursuing a career in teaching. “Funny enough, I got an email from one of the recruiters while they were at Lafayette and I was in South Africa,” Thompson says. “Apparently, my name kept coming up as the recruiters were asking for recommendations for students who would make great teachers, and they decided to reach out to me even though I wasn’t on campus. I don’t know who at Lafayette was speaking my name into the universe; whoever it was, I appreciate them, because that’s ultimately what got me into high school education, and it’s how I got my first job as a teacher in Jacksonville.” 

Since then, Thompson has made it his mission to bring his students to Lafayette for tours as often as he can. One of his recent graduates, Fatima Camara ’26, just began her Lafayette journey this past fall. 

“From what I know, she is out there thriving,” Thompson says. “I told Robert Young ’14—a close friend of mine who currently serves as director of intercultural development at Lafayette—about Fatima starting her first year, and Robert sent me an email reassuring me that Fatima was having a great time. And I felt at ease; it was good to know I was able to pass the baton to someone else from my community. And that speaks to the importance of the relationships you build at the College.”

Looking ahead, Thompson hopes to someday make his own mark on the education field by combining his love for teaching with another passion: filmmaking. “Teaching is one of those jobs where you give your all every single day, and that’s one thing that leads to teacher burnout. The pandemic forced educators all around the country to reimagine what education looks like, and it gave me the opportunity to slow down, focus on myself, and think outside the walls of the school building,” he says. “One of my goals for the future is to collaborate with students, families, and communities to visually tell stories that depict the communities I serve.”

Thompson says he is grateful for the opportunity to attend Lafayette, because his time there not only impacted the way he perceived the world, but also offered him unique opportunities that prepared him for life after college.

“As alumni, we are the living and breathing Yelp reviews—we are the representation of Lafayette. So, it’s important for us to remember where we came from and to give back in the same way the people there have helped you get to where you are,” Thompson says. “Community is important, and we need it to thrive and learn about ourselves. My world changed when I was able to open up to other communities and learn about them. Community is where the magic happens.”