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Thais Ridgeway (A&S ’13) has spent most of her life trying to change a harrowing set of statistics: One in 12 teens will experience dating violence, and one in four men and one in three women in the United States will encounter some form of sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner.
The Pitt alumna is a federal law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and was crowned Miss New York United States in 2020 — and her platform for all three is dating violence education and prevention.
Her passion began in her hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“A high school friend of mine was the victim of teen dating violence, so it was personal for me,” said Ridgeway. “I remember being surprised that there was no education readily available in schools to teach us about the signs, where to go to get help and how to respond when one finds themself the victim of dating violence. It was not being discussed enough.”
Determined to enact change, she began challenging legislators to do more and, in 2008, secured an internship with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
“I was 18 and didn't know much,” said Ridgeway. “But I got to walk the halls and pass the legislators’ offices every day. I was able to see how they did business and what the process looked like.”
She was also able to share her ideas directly with decision-makers.
“I asked for a meeting and spoke with Rep. Scott Conklin,” said Ridgeway. “He asked, ‘Do you have a document you would like us to review?’ I remember thinking, ‘Not yet, but I can get something.’ That was my first introduction to legislative drafting.”
Ridgeway's draft eventually transformed into Pennsylvania House Bill 2026. Although HB2026 was never reintroduced in the Senate Education Committee, the Teen Dating Violence language was taken from the draft and amended into HB101, a Senate Education Omnibus Bill, which recommends teen dating violence education in grades 9-12. This bill passed into law on Nov. 17, 2010, and became Act 104 of 2010, which mandated that a teen dating violence curriculum and warning signs be taught in middle school and high school.
“It was my first attempt at putting pen to paper for an idea and making it tangible, educational and about advocacy,” said Ridgeway. “It forced me to take these big ideas, quantify them and really pitch the importance of this issue to legislators who, honestly, are balancing a lot, like infrastructure and budget. I didn’t know how far it could go.”
Ridgeway received the Congressional and Presidential Volunteer Gold Service Medals for her work. And that was all just as a high schooler.
Progress at Pitt
During her time at Pitt, Ridgeway was a Pathfinder, a resident assistant, worked in Pitt’s telefund for what’s now the division of Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement, became a member of the historically Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (DST) and was the vice president and parliamentarian for the National Panhellenic Council.
There’s more: She helped high schoolers prepare for college with Upward Bound. She was the 2011-12 Junior Leader for community service. A campus ambassador for Teach For America. An intern for the Institute of Entrepreneurial Excellence. And a member of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honors society.
As a member of DST and, later, an intern for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Ridgeway’s knowledge and passion for social justice issues bloomed.
“Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated really focuses on raising awareness around issues pertaining to people of color and women,” she said. “With my Casey internship, I focused on constituent services and issues within and beyond the city of Pittsburgh. I learned about local issues, their frequency and how we could possibly address them.”
[Learn more about Pitt’s resources for preventing, addressing and reporting sexual misconduct.]
Pitt also provided the stage for the psychology and sociology major and legal studies minor to discover her interest in pageantry as a means for self-reflection and personal improvement.
“I’m grateful for my experience at Pitt,” said Ridgeway, who was crowned Miss Black University of Pittsburgh in 2011. “I learned a lot. Not just from the curriculum, but also the people,” she added, listing influential Pitt staff like Linda G. Thompson (A&S ’74, ’78G) and Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s former senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary for the Board of Trustees.
“Ms. Thompson and Dr. Humphrey always took the time to speak with diverse students about activities and personal development. Those conversations helped me think critically about my next steps: What was next and how I could get there.”
She added that she didn't pick up her legal studies minor until halfway through college.
“I thought I was going to do Teach For America, so it was quite a pivot for me to decide to go to law school,” said Ridgeway. “It was the best decision of my life made, in part, because of opportunities that Pitt granted to me, so I'm grateful to the institution for its role in my journey.”
Forging a career steeped in service
Ridgeway continued her education at the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., where she graduated in 2016 with honors and as class president.
“When I moved to Washington D.C., I had internship opportunities that presented different learning experiences,” said Ridgeway of her broadened interest in social justice. “My understanding expanded in terms of me being introduced to areas of the law I’d never considered — like social justice in economic and educational equality.”
Upon completing law school, she moved to New York, where she served as assistant corporation counsel for New York City’s Office of the Corporation Counsel until 2021.
“2020 was definitely a busy year for me,” Ridgeway said.
In February 2020, she accepted her direct commission in the U.S. Army Reserve where she is a judge advocate and provides legal services within the military.
“I’d always desired to serve my country,” said Ridgeway, who was inspired by a veteran uncle.
She also became a federal law clerk in the Southern District of New York and Miss New York United States 2020. Ridgeway competed in the Miss United States pageant, where she was the first runner-up and won the national best overall interview.
“Not every state has legislation that enables education on teen dating violence awareness and prevention in the classroom, so it’s something I continued to be interested in once I got to New York,” she said. “It expanded to include domestic violence, and that's how my pageant platform came to be.”
As Miss New York United States 2020, Ridgeway served as a community partner to promote Rising Grounds: STEPS to End Family Violence, a nonprofit human services organization that provides critical services and hosts programming to end family violence. Ridgeway selected the organization’s “Consent Cape,” designed by New York City students under the direction of fashion designers Sergio Guadarrama and Kade Johnson of Celestino Couture, as her feature look at the national Miss United States Pageant. The handmade denim cape is a bold fashion statement to raise sexual assault awareness and promote prevention.
What began as a means for practicing public speaking for Ridgeway ultimately evolved into an opportunity to help others.
“Pageantry is a journey that's defined by the person involved,” she said. “Pageants may seem a bit antiquated, but there's a lot of aspects that can help a contestant to be a better professional and more confident in whatever she decides to do moving forward.”
For Ridgeway, moving forward means promoting diversity in law schools, which will in turn promote diversity in the profession, she said. It also means continuing volunteer and advocacy work through DST’s New York Alumnae Chapter.
“No matter what I invest my time and energy into, I want to ensure I'm able to continue to answer this question: Why am I taking on this particular task and what will be the outcome — not only for me, but for the community that I'm serving?”
— Kara Henderson