How Failure Led This Florida A&M University Professor to Make History, Twice

Jennifer Ogunsola Sep, 04, 2018

We’ve all heard the saying, “failure is our greatest teacher.” Well, Tracy Thomas, who flunked out of pharmacy school while an undergraduate student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), used her failure to make history. In May 2019, at 49 years old, Thomas will earn her Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Clinical Doctorate degree, making her the only African-American with both a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences and DPT in the nation.

But the road for the FAMU professor hasn’t always been an easy one. Born in Rochester, New York and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, she understood very early on that when things don’t go as planned, you must adjust and continue to fight for what you want. During the end of her senior year of high school, after having accepted multiple scholarships to the University of Florida, she agreed to go to brunch with her best friend and two other young ladies. The brunch invitation came from Frederick Humphries, the President of FAMU from 1985 through 2001. During brunch, Humphries said to Thomas and the three other ladies, “I’ve looked at your records, and I know that you really just want to leave Tallahassee so that you can get away from your parents, but we really want you to come to Florida A&M University. So, I’m going to offer you the Presidential Scholarship.”

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Thomas accepted the scholarship, and in the fall of 1986, she started at FAMU as a pharmacy student. From pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated to gaining lifelong friendships, she enjoyed her time at Florida A&M. However, after four years, she learned that there was one thing that she would be leaving without—her pharmacy degree.

Four years into her six year pharmacy program, she flunked out.

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After everything that her mother sacrificed for her to attend college, Thomas’ main concern was that she’d be disappointed. But, while Thomas messed up her end of the bargain, her mother was still fully supportive and kept her promise of helping her through college. In the midst of trying to finish her three biology classes, she began dating a guy who was a physical therapy (PT) student. Not only did she fall in love with him, she says, “I fell in love with the profession because I was always reading with him and helping him study. And so, when he graduated from the program in August of ’92, I applied, was accepted and enrolled into the PT program.”

No, they didn’t end up marrying each other, but meeting him exposed her to a love and passion that she didn’t know existed. Great news for Thomas, instead of taking just three classes, she now had to tell her mom that it would be another two years of school before she was done. At this point, it was 1992 and Thomas had been an undergraduate student at FAMU for six years, which means that her undergraduate degree would now take eight years.

She was scared, but she knew she had to go back to her mother and tell her that she had new plans. “My mother looked at me and said, ‘Okay, this has to be it because if you stay one more year on that campus they’re going to name a building after you.’”

On August 5, 1994, Thomas earned her physical therapy degree, and two months later, she received her license to practice. Not to mention, she only had to take her board exams one time, which is extremely difficult for most.

Tracy Thomas could have easily given up and said that school was not for her, but she didn’t. Maggie Duval could have given up on her daughter, but she didn’t. And because they didn’t give up, on August 8, 2008 at 39 years old, Thomas received her Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences with an emphasis in cardiovascular pharmacology and toxicology, becoming one of only five physical therapists in the United States with a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences.

In 2014, she returned to Florida A&M University. No, they didn’t name a building after her as her mother suggested, but she’s the director of physical therapy research and a physical therapy professor.

Tirelessly persistent and strong-willed, Thomas’ failure pushed her into a career that has allowed her to make history twice, and not to mention she has no student loans, and makes enough money to pay for her Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Clinical Doctorate degree that she receives next May.

Failure? Absolutely not. Tracy Thomas is winning.