ASU faculty who inspire: Ayanna Thompson

May 24, 2022 · 4 min read · By ASU Online
Ayanna Thompson is an accomplished Regents Professor at Arizona State University. From a challenging childhood to Wall Street to Shakespeare scholar, she paves her path as she goes.

From finance to education

Ayanna Thompson’s path from finance to Regents Professor at Arizona State University was anything but linear. As a child, she believed the amount of money she made would define her success. With her sights set on Wall Street, Thompson landed a prestigious role as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers. Although she achieved her goal, she realized it didn’t spark passion in her.

“It felt like I had fulfilled all my desires and goals in life, and then realized that it was not really what my soul wanted,” said Thompson.

At that moment, her next move became clear; she’d quit her job and pursue a PhD in English. Initially worried how her family would perceive this shift, she called her mother and broke the news. To say she was supportive is an understatement.

"I've never been so proud of you in my life,” said Thompson’s mother. “I knew you were chasing the dollar and that was not going to be what ultimately fulfilled you."

From then on, Thompson decided to follow her dreams and find meaningful work in areas she’s passionate about.


Finding her niche 

When Thompson began her PhD studies, she struggled to find her niche. Progressing through her program, she realized the answers to her questions originated in the past. As she studied first encounters between east and west, Africa and Europe and new world versus old world, she found that many of these pivotal moments took place in the Renaissance. Once she discovered this, Shakespeare seemed to be a natural fit.

“There are a lot of encounter moments in Shakespeare that seem formative for the way that we think about identity and culture,” explained Thompson.

When Thompson completed her PhD, she didn’t leave Shakespeare behind. Now a Regents Professor at ASU, she teaches an online course dedicated to his career and body of work.

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In this video, Ayanna Thompson talks about her career journey; from her early success on Wall Street, to teaching Shakespeare at ASU.

Inspiring learners to explore new topics

Once unsure about the topic, Thompson now describes Shakespeare as “the coolest subject in the world,” and enjoys showing her students all of the ways the poet is still relevant today.

From television and movies to politicians quoting (or misquoting), Shakespeare is everywhere. Thompson explains that because life is cyclical, humans tend to come back to the same questions. In her view, Shakespeare had an understanding of those questions and created art that captured them in a way that’s stood the test of time.

“I do feel like if you have access to feeling comfortable with the texts, that's something that will last your whole life, because Shakespeare isn't going away. He's still with us 400 years later. He outlasts everybody. I call him the ultimate undead. Just when you think like, ‘Oh, now that African-American literature has become pretty prominent, Shakespeare will…’ Nope. He's still there. The ultimate zombie — Shakespeare,” said Thompson.

She shares that students who are reluctant to learn about Shakespeare are her favorite ones to teach. Before finding her passion for Shakespeare in college, Thompson felt the same way. She encourages students to explore their passions while keeping an open mind. She enjoys inviting students to explore and fall into new areas of learning.

For Thompson, one of the more rewarding aspects of being an educator is hearing from past students. “It means so much to me to think that I touched someone in a way that has a lasting impact,” she said. To her, the imprint left on students and their success means more than any award or accolade.


Encouraging students to explore their passions

Thompson believes your studies should take you where your passions call. Leading with your heart rather than a job title can be scary, but it can also help you land your dream job.

In addition to working as a Shakespeare scholar and professor, Thompson also partners with theater companies and famous actors. She wants students to know that, in addition to teaching, ASU faculty members are people who have made careers learning about their passions and sharing them in spaces they never imagined.

Reflecting on her own career, Thompson said, “I'm doing stuff that's existed for thousands of years, which is theater, but I never imagined that, as a scholar, I would be in the room on Broadway with famous actors. Yet that's what I'm doing.“

As an ASU Online student, you’re encouraged to try it all and expand your learning outside of the confines of a single topic. Thompson said it best: “I think you should be able to do all of it. That's what a rich human existence is. People who know how to think critically across fields are the citizens that we need in the 21st century.”


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