Faith in His Future

October 1, 2009
Thielman: DAA undergraduate scholar.

Thielman: DAA undergraduate scholar. Cary Norton

Jonathan Thielman has wanted to come to Duke for as long as he can remember, but he admits that Duke was not at the top of his list when he applied to fifteen institutions of higher education. "Even with the financial-aid packages that Duke offers, it would not have been affordable for my family without some kind of scholarship," says the Birmingham, Alabama, teenager.

But a FedEx package from the Duke Alumni Association (DAA) last spring put Duke back at the top of his list. That package contained the good news that Thielman had been awarded a DAA Alumni Endowed Undergraduate Scholarship, which provides four years of full tuition for students with demonstrated financial need. The scholarship also pays for a summer academic experience of the scholar's choice, including the opportunity to study abroad. In addition, scholars are invited to participate in special educational, social, and cultural programs on campus during their four years at Duke.

"My jaw dropped open and stayed that way for about five minutes," says Thielman. "My predominant feeling is one of gratefulness. I want to live up to the expectations that people have of me."

When he matriculated in August as part of the Class of 2013, Thielman became the latest member of a family with broad ties to Duke, including his father, Frank Thielman Ph.D. '87; his uncle, Nathan Thielman M.D. '90, an associate professor of medicine and pathology in infectious diseases and international health at Duke Medical Center (his AIDS research in Tanzania was featured in the January-February 2005 issue of Duke Magazine); and his cousin Daniel Thielman, a member of the Class of 2012.

Thielman attended Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School, where he was a member of his school's Science Olympiad team and varsity cross-country team. He was elected by his peers to serve as president of the school's chapter of the National English Honor Society, and tutored inner-city middle- and high-school students in math and English.

Through those twice-weekly tutoring sessions, which he began in middle school and continued through the summer before coming to Duke, Thielman says he "found consistent pleasure" in helping other students academically. But his most pivotal extracurricular pursuit was working as a lab assistant with neuro-oncologist Burton Nabors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"Even though I'm not sure what I will major in, I intend to pursue premed courses at Duke," says Thielman. "Before my experience with Dr. Nabors, I was considering engineering, or maybe something in the math and sciences. But once I watched the kind of work he and his colleagues conducted, and the meaningful contributions they were making to cancer research, I knew I wanted to be part of that."

Whether he eventually pursues a medical career that involves patient care, research, or teaching—or some combination of the three—Thielman plans to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way. With the medical center adjacent to campus, Thielman says he hopes to shadow physicians or assist in lab research as an undergrad.

A devout member of the Presbyterian Church in America, he says he also plans to become involved in the university's faith community (his parents met when both were involved with campus ministry at Boston University).

His father is the Presbyterian Professor of divinity at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, and his mother, Abby, is an artist and stay-at-home mother. Thielman is the oldest of the couple's three children, and the only boy.

If Thielman sounds a tad mature for his age, rest assured that he will acclimate easily to such traditional social pursuits as tenting for Duke basketball games. "Oh, that's definitely part of my plan," he says. "We just need to win a national championship while I'm there."

Editor's Note: Two names were missing from the list of Jonathan Thielman's Duke alumni relatives: his uncle, Samuel Thielman M.D. '80, A.M. '83, Ph.D. '86, and his aunt, Sara Wilson Thielman '78. We regret the error.