Sarah Thomas to UM Grads: ‘Prove to Yourself that You Belong’

Kathy Dean Alumni, News, UM Grad Success

MOBILE, Ala. – University of Mobile alumna Sarah Thomas broke glass ceilings to become the first female official in the National Football League, and she shared lessons learned on that journey during her commencement address to the UM Class of 2021.

The Christian university awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters to Thomas during an outdoor ceremony held on campus May 8. Degrees were awarded to 265 graduates, including the first doctoral degrees from the new Doctor of Nursing Practice and Doctor of Musical Arts in vocal performance programs.

Dr. Thomas graduated from the University of Mobile in 1995, having earned a basketball scholarship and Academic All-American honors. She began her football officiating career in 1996 when she attended a meeting for aspiring football officials with her brother. She became the first full-time female official in NFL history in 2015, and on Feb. 7, 2021, she became the first female to officiate a Super Bowl, serving as down judge for Super Bowl LV.

“I want to share a few things that I’ve learned after leaving the University of Mobile that have truly helped me to become the first female in the National Football League. But I don’t hide behind that title, it does not identify who I am,” Thomas said.

So many people get wrapped up in titles, she said, but graduates shouldn’t go through life trying to do things for the recognition.

“Do not go out in life trying to prove people wrong. That list of people will never end. It will exhaust you. Instead, you prove to yourself that you belong,” Thomas said.

“Go out and do something because you love it. The recognition will come. People will see it in you. The people you thought you had to prove wrong, they will fall by the wayside. Or, they will get in line and start respecting you on your merit.”

As she began her address, Thomas noted that UM President Lonnie Burnett told her she would have about 15 minutes to speak, “but no one would boo me if I cut it short. I think he failed to remember that I’m an NFL official. We get booed in a split second.”

As the audience laughed, she asked football fans to raise their hands and repeat after her: “I promise…from this day forward…I will no longer…boo the officials.”

Thomas congratulated and challenged graduates.

“What you did to be able to sit in that chair today is a huge accomplishment. But what you do with that accomplishment when you get out of that chair today will matter.”

She urged graduates to not fear failure.

“You’re going to come to a fork in the road at some point, and let’s say you choose left instead of right. When you get to that roadblock on the left, don’t start letting self-doubt creep in and make you wish you had chosen right. Instead, look at that roadblock as a speed bump, and the quicker you get over the speed bump, the faster it is in your rearview mirror,” Thomas said.

“When you put that in your rearview mirror, don’t look behind you. Don’t focus on it…Your windshield is so much bigger, and there are so many opportunities in front of you.”

Failing does not mean someone is a failure.

“Your best successes will come from your greatest failures,” she said.

She encouraged graduates to succeed in the right way.

“I’m going to leave you with this: It takes all kinds of people to run this world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be kind to each other in making it a better place. Leave here today and go leave your mark, and make this world a better place.” 


About the University of Mobile

The University of Mobile is a Christ-centered liberal arts and sciences institution with a vision of higher education for a higher purpose, founded to honor God by equipping students for their future professions through rigorous academic preparation and spiritual transformation. Core values are: Christ-Centered, Academically-Focused, Student-Devoted and Distinctively-Driven. The university offers on-campus and online bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in over 75 academic programs. Founded in 1961, the University of Mobile is affiliated with the Alabama Baptist State Convention and is located 10 miles north of Mobile, Alabama on a campus of over 880 acres.

For more information about the University of Mobile, visit the website at www.umobile.edu or call Enrollment Services at 1.800.WIN.RAMS or 251.442.2222.

About the Author

Kathy Dean

Kathy Dean is assistant vice president for university communications and has helped tell the University of Mobile story since 1993. She is an award-winning public relations professional and former journalist. Her husband and daughter are UM graduates. She loves playing in the yard – planting flowers, picking blueberries, pulling weeds and petting her two mini-schnauzers.