Alumni Profile: Thomas Aiello

Thomas Aiello says history became his major “by default.”

“I was not a history major early in my Henderson career,” he said. “I didn’t declare a major and simply took the classes that most engaged and interested me. But many of the courses that meant so much to me were history courses.”

Today, Aiello is an associate professor of history and African American studies at Valdosta State University in Georgia. He has authored several books and teaches in a variety of American and African American history subjects.

“I focus in particular on African American history and 20th Century American cultural and intellectual history,” Aiello said. “My books have been on topics as diverse as Depression-era southern Negro League baseball, non-unanimous criminal jury verdicts, the battle between Booker T. Washington and WEB Du Bois, and the glue-sniffing epidemic of the 1960s.”

After graduating from Henderson State in 2000, Aiello moved to Little Rock to work at the Old Statehouse Museum in the original state capitol building. He began working on his master’s degree two years later at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and soon earned his Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas.

Aiello returned to UL Lafayette where he taught for three years before joining the faculty at Valdosta State.

He credits Henderson’s history department for much of his success.

“When I came to Henderson, I was a confused, punk kid with all sorts of problems and nothing but uncertainty when it came to what I wanted to do, what I needed to know, and what was important to accomplish to set and reach goals,” Aiello said. “The Henderson history faculty provided all of those things to me.

“Dr. Graves, Dr. Halpern and, in particular, Dr. Boswell, not only taught me history, they taught me how to be a historian and helped provide a focus for a kid who loved the read and write, but did not know how to marshal those interests and skills.”

Aiello said those professors and Henderson’s faculty and staff in general are “unquestionably the reason I am a historian today – a reality made all the more significant by the fact that I was not a student with his act together, with a plan, or without other substantial hindrances to success.”

He advises current students to find the courses that interest them the most.

“Let yourself become immersed in the subjects that speak to you,” he said. “And trust the world class faculty to turn that interest into degree-level expertise. You are in capable hands.”

As a college professor, Aiello said his schedule looks much the same today as it did when he attended Henderson.

“I go to classes all morning, I come home and take a nap, and I read and write in the evening,” he said. “The professoriate allows people who love their college experience to keep participating in it. I get to be in college for the rest of my life.”

Aiello describes himself as “a vegan who rescues animals, watches sports religiously, and spends the rest of my time reading fiction and writing history.”

He and his fiancé have in their household two pigs, two rats, two rabbits, four cats (one that is paralyzed and in a “wheelchair”), and one dog.

“It’s the biggest and best family I could ever ask for,” Aiello said.

If he hadn’t majored in history, Aiello said he would have focused on art.

“Art and art history were my minor, and they still mean a great deal to me,” he said. “Ultimately, though, it was the structure and rigor of the history department that finally drew me in.”

College is a relatively short period in one’s life, Aiello said. “But it’s a period that has a dramatic effect on what comes later.

“I have been fortunate enough to give speeches and do research all over the country and see so many things that I never would have had the opportunity to see without my career. My Henderson degree opened up the world to me. I could not be more grateful.”

• This alumni feature is part of an ongoing project featuring Henderson's outstanding undergraduate and graduate academic programs.