Hailing from Los Angeles, CA, Olivia Thonson’s interest in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies began at a young age, when her grandmother told her stories of how difficult it was to navigate high school as a woman in the 1950s. One story in particular stood out to Thonson, how her grandmother wanted to take the auto-shop class her high school offered but was not allowed to do so due to the fact that no other women had signed up for the class.
“She found three other girls and they all forced the instructor of the class to let them enroll,” Thonson said. “She ended up being the only person in that whole class able to take apart a car engine and put it back together.”
Since then, Thonson has become a prolific activist. In her sophomore year of high school, she started a club called “This Means W.A.R (Women Against Assault and Rape)” along with a few of her friends. They instituted both self-defense and sexual education classes on campus for free, and were invited to the “Girls Build L.A.” conference in which high school students from all over Los Angeles County were asked to present their ideas on how to improve their respective high school campuses. Thonson believes that the opportunity to work with all of those women in that setting served as a building block for her to become involved with activism later on in her academic career.
In her freshman year at Wake Forest, Thonson started the Intersectional Feminist Collective with the help of Dr. Jieun Lee, who sponsored events for the organization.
“Olivia’s thoughts and actions have always reflected a sense of altruism which will undoubtedly lead her to make a positive difference in society,” Lee said. “She has tirelessly promoted critical engagements on campus through multiple successful events related to gender and sexuality topics she organized. It was my great joy to have met Olivia, and I will take immense pleasure in following her future accomplishments on her life path as an intersectional feminist leader after graduation.”
Thonson harbors a deep appreciation for Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and believes it has significantly shaped her experiences throughout her academic journey. As a double major in WGSS and Politics & International Affairs and a minor in Bioethics, Thonson is able to take her knowledge from WGSS and apply it to her other classes, noticing how that foundational knowledge from her major classes has enabled her to have a more complex understanding of international issues.
“As a woman, feminism is so applicable to every part of my life and every decision I make,” Thonson said. “No matter what, there will always be some theory or some form of feminism that I can apply.”
Thonson has been working on her honors thesis, advised by Dr. Kristina Gupta, and works at the Office of Wellbeing as the Health Promotions Assistant. Her responsibilities include managing the university’s sexual health portfolio, training sexual health ambassadors, contributing to organizing sex week and conducting educational workshops.
“Olivia is an outstanding student and completed a number of excellent projects in the courses she took with me,” Gupta said. “She recently finished a truly impressive joint WGSS honors project with another WGSS major, Leilani Fletcher. For the project, they created a series of zines [self-published magazines] exploring student activism at Wake Forest from an anti-racist feminist perspective. We have been truly lucky to have her as a WGSS major!”
Thonson aims to further these efforts post-graduation, intending to achieve a dual Master’s in Public Health and Public Policy. Before she engages in this pursuit, however, Thonson plans to travel to Europe and Southeast Asia for six months — and also work briefly as a snowboarding instructor. Her ultimate goal is specifically to work around global health, maternal and child health and men’s reproductive health in the context of comprehensive sexual education.
“I want to feel like what I’m doing is actually making an impact. I would love to work with grassroots community organizations on a global scale,” Thonson said.