Danna Thomas Turns Challenges into Passions

May 13, 2011 — Danna Thomas' innovative spirit fuels her passions – jazz music, feminism, mental health issues and education.

Both an Echols and Jefferson scholar at the University of Virginia, Thomas combined her interests to create an interdisciplinary course of study in arts administration, music, poetry and studies in women and gender during her four years.

"I've been able to develop relationships all across Grounds – from the Architecture School to the Lawn – and I've come to see how everything is interconnected and related in some way, and in a deep way," she said. "Innovation in our society needs the left and right brain working together."

Thomas also has defined her academic pursuits through her life experiences.

Since she was 10 she has played the alto saxophone. The father of a fellow musician challenged Thomas in her second year at U.Va. at a music institute for aspiring jazz musicians, telling her she was not what "a lead alto sax player is supposed to look like" – which she perceived as a gibe that ran counter to her belief that women are capable of anything.

She found no such skepticism from the jazz community in the College of Arts & Sciences' McIntire Department of Music. She played lead alto sax with the Student Jazz Ensemble, served as the music department's representative on the Arts & Sciences Council, and as the jazz intern in the music department for a year. She helped with jazz promotions and solicited funds to purchase music equipment.

"Danna came in playing at a pretty high level," said John D'earth, who directs the Student Jazz Ensemble. "The lead alto chair is an important position in terms of music and leadership. She has a tremendous sound on the alto sax, a big warm sound. It's a real gift."

Last spring, Thomas united her interest in music, the arts, art administration and feminist studies and involved the larger University community to spearhead "Minds Wide Open: U.Va. Celebrates Women in the Arts." She crafted the effort, part of the statewide "Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts" initiative, to honor 40 years of full coeducation at the University.

"By initiating and producing the U.Va. portion of the 'Minds Wide Open' celebration, Danna perfectly illustrates how an understanding of arts administration skills and philosophies can, in this case, help honor and benefit women artists and the University in general," said George Sampson, who launched the arts administration program and was Thomas' adviser for the independent study focused on the event.

Thomas blended her interests in poetry and jazz for her Jefferson Scholar recital, held at the end of April. She combined her own musical compositions, her arrangements of favorite jazz pieces, and poetry she wrote as part of English professor's Gregory Orr's "Poetry as Survival" course.

Orr's course "opened my eyes to the power of poetry," she said. Having suffered from depression and anxiety since her senior year in high school, "putting the words on paper was therapeutic. It helped me put my emotions into an organized form with concentrated meaning," she said.

D'earth, who has worked with Thomas on creative issues and jazz theory, said the recital showcased her interdisciplinary work and was a capstone of a tremendous career at U.Va. in the arts. "Danna got into the idea of autobiography, individual storytelling. That's what jazz is about," he said.

The recital was part of her outreach for "Music 4 Mental Health," a national outreach that aims to promote awareness of mental health issues and bring attention to the pivotal role the arts play in improving mental well-being. Thomas serves as a national spokesperson and ambassador for the initiative.

"More people suffer from depression than diabetes, cancer and heart disease combined," she said. "It's most likely to manifest in 18- to 24-year-olds, and one in 10 college students have contemplated suicide.

"Mental illness does not discriminate. I am one of many faces."

Music "helped me face some of my demons and express myself," she said. "Playing my horn releases part of me I try to hide and suppress. I am an emotional player. I play who I am. It's my voice."

The Annapolis, Md. native will continue her efforts to promote mental health in June as she competes in the Miss Maryland pageant with the platform, "Stop the Stigma: Depression and Anxiety Awareness." She hopes to become Miss America in 2012 and carry on her campaign. To get the word out about the importance of mental health, she's already made more than 30 appearances in the past few months, contributed to blogtalkradio.com and has a website devoted to her mental health platform.

A 2009 trip to Southeast Asia with her boyfriend, Tony Robertson (a 2009 U.Va. music graduate), and his family sparked a new passion for Thomas. She fell in love with the children at an orphanage they visited in Vietnam and vowed to return. "I was in the orphanage, holding a baby who had been left at the gate. Many of the others were HIV-positive. Their needs are so great," Thomas said.

Determined to do something completely different the summer between her last two years at U.Va., Thomas traveled to Cambodia with Robertson. After training with Language Corps, they taught English as volunteers in an orphanage and a school. Neither could afford to pay a teacher, Thomas said.

The experience was transformative. "I realized my life's goal. I want to use the talents, ambitions and opportunities I have been blessed with to help others," she said.

Thomas will join the Teach for America program in Baltimore this fall and attend The Johns Hopkins University to pursue a master's degree in teaching.

And if she is crowned Miss Maryland – well, she'll defer her Teach for America commitment for a year.

— By Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations