Donavion Thomas '17
Finds New Career in the Heart-work of Helping Grieving Families

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Donavion Thomas ’17 was moving up the fast track even before his graduation from Mercy.
Upon earning his bachelor’s degree, Thomas scored a dream job at JPMorgan Chase & Co., first as an analyst. He quickly moved up to a role as a legal operations analyst, continuing a steady climb up the corporate ladder. It was a climb he’d been preparing for since he first stepped onto Mercy’s campus.

As a student, the Brooklyn native took advantage of every opportunity to use his leadership skills – holding roles as president of both the Student Government Association and the Black Student Union. Thomas thrived in Mercy’s active learning environment and, as a finance and marketing major in the School of Business, discovered success through team projects, making strong connections with his classmates. “Throughout my four years at Mercy I really feel that I got to branch out and explore so much,” said Thomas.

All that exploration paid off in his post-college career with the success he’d always hoped for. Enter the year 2020. The pandemic put a clearer view on how he viewed that ladder he had been climbing. A desire to be closer to family who had relocated to Delaware prompted a job shift to Citi Financial Service, but Thomas remained restless.

Something was missing, he explained, but he wasn’t sure what it was, that is until the death of a close friend’s mother. While attending her funeral services, he remembers watching the sensitive way funeral staff helped his friend through the most difficult times and he became inspired. “It was a realization for me. It really made me think about this life and how I could manage my job with my purpose,” said Thomas.

Like many whose mindsets during the pandemic were awakened, Thomas said seeking more meaning in his life propelled him to look toward a new path. Yet, Thomas admits his desire to pursue a career in the funeral industry was as unconventional a path as they come. Undaunted, Thomas began to build a plan – a plan to pivot entirely. “When I tell people what I’m planning to do it kind of blows them out of the water. Death is a hard subject for people to approach,” said Thomas.

Last fall, he was accepted into the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science (PIMS) and within two weeks he’d managed to secure both housing and an apprenticeship through a funeral home coordinated by PIMS faculty. “Taking a leap of faith has always been in me. It was a true calling and even though I didn’t know what was in store for me, I knew this was the right fit.”

Halfway through his program, Thomas is navigating a fulltime student schedule that also has him working nights and weekends assisting at funeral services. His coursework incorporates medical terminology, anatomy, pathology, and classes on psychology and grief. Intuitively, he knows this path is leading him to a new career that aligns his natural spiritual nature and a desire to be of service to people facing loss.  The work of “first-responders” is well recognized, but many overlook what he calls the “last responders”, said Thomas. “I want to bring light to a profession that helps families.”

In January 2023, Thomas is set to graduate and take his national board exam to become a licensed funeral director. He encourages those who are afraid of pivoting careers to look deeply into themselves and do their homework first. Thomas also said he leaned on his spirituality and prayed about his next step, ultimately knowing in the deepest sense that the path was leading him in more than just a new direction, but to something that was a "true calling". He said “life is too short” to wait and wonder when a change of direction is needed. “Leaps of faith can change everything,” he said.