The University of Wyoming is getting ready for the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Days of Dialogue, a week-long event with programming dedicated to engaging the UW community and starting conversations.

Jason Thompson will be leading one of those conversations, as the keynote speaker at the MLKDOD. Thompson is no stranger to the university, he is an alumni and earned his master’s and bachelor's sociology degrees from UW. He was also the first elected black Associated Students of the University of Wyoming president in the 1996-97 academic year.

Thompson is now the director of diversity and inclusion for the U.S Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, CO. On Feb 1., he will return to the UW campus to talk about his experiences as the first elected black ASUW president as well as his current career.

Looking back, Thompson said he didn’t set out to become ASUW president the year he ran. Thompson said his running mate, Dominick Martinez, was in need of a partner to run.

“So, that was the only reason I ran and I didn’t even think I was going to win,” Thompson said. “It became very apparent to me as we were going through the process that it was very contentious. It even got to the point where my posters were being ripped down all the time.”

Thompson said during that election, it became so contentious the City of Laramie had to bring in their election equipment and the city ran the election. Thompson said he didn’t remember a time where that had been done.

Being the first elected black ASUW president was a challenge. Thompson said it was a rough year, but looking back on the experience, he decided to focus on the positive aspects of it.

He recounted his first Board of Trustees’ meeting after the election. Thompson said he was nervous about how it would go, since the student body had been quite hostile towards him. Thompson said hadn’t been told he needed to prepare a report before his first meeting and had no report when he was called on. Thompson said the Trustees’ kindness and understanding took him aback.

“The board couldn’t have been nicer about it,” Thompson said. “They said, ‘that’s fine, we’ll change the agenda, you can do it tomorrow.’”

Thompson said the biggest accomplishment during his term as ASUW president was opening the door for other diverse candidates.

“Prior to me there were really no people of color who became ASUW president,” Thompson said. “I don’t know if I was all that good at it, but if nothing else hopefully I gave other people confidence to run. After me you’ll see there was a lot of probably a lot smarter, sharper people who come from a lot of different races and ethnicities and genders that otherwise might not have been, got to be student body president.”

Being ASUW president wasn’t Thompson’s only first. He went on to become the first director of diversity and inclusion for the USOC. He says being the first elected black ASUW president helped him deal with the pressure of being the first in a position.

“I had never really thought about that direct connection but sometimes when you are the first of something it can be a lot of pressure,” Thompson said. “Because I had done that before, even though it wasn’t directly related to what I am doing now, I think it has helped give me confidence that I could do it.”

Thompson says one of his favorite aspects of his position is being a part of such a large peaceful organization that brings the world together and builds a legacy of peace in an often not-so-peaceful world.

“It’s the only time the world gets together is the Olympics and Paralympics,” “We get together in peace. And it is a great example of the best of what humans can do. It’s something I don’t directly control, obviously but I just feel so honored to be a part of it.”

This year’s MLKDOD theme is “50 Years: Reflecting on Our Progress.” Thompson said progress is something that he has been thinking about a lot before the upcoming event.

Thompson said he remembers when he was six years old and getting to meet his great-great grandfather in 1972.

“He was 100 years old when I met him. It dawned on me that he was born probably in 1872-ish, it means the man was probably born a slave. I thought, ‘wow, that’s not that long ago, that’s a lot of progress!” Thompson said. “I mean if you think about how far we have come, I know sometimes it doesn’t feel perfect and we aren’t necessarily where we want to be in some cases, maybe, we can do better, obviously. But, that’s a lot of progress.”

Thompson said he likes the theme of this year’s MLKDOD and that it is a nice time to reflect how far Wyoming and the United States has come.

“We’ve done well, there’s a lot of work to be done, but we’ve made progress.”

Thompson will speak on Thursday, Feb 1. at 7:30 p.m. in the Wyoming Union Ballroom.

More From Laramie Live