As a high school freshman Thomas Westphal found a calling. “When I was 14,” he said, “I played the lead in my school’s production of Bye Bye Birdie. I wore a gold lamé suit, and all the girls loved me — those on stage at least. That’s when I fell in love with acting.”
This, however, was not Thomas’s first exposure to the performing arts. His peripatetic academic family had moved from England, where he was born and attended a Waldorf school with a strong arts tradition – the chariots in the production of Julius Caesar were carefully built and actually worked, he recalls happily – to New Hampshire, to Munich, Germany, back to England, then to Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Idaho.
"It wasn't difficult to adjust — in fact, it was fun," Tom said. "I remember practicing an American accent. In a way, it was excellent preparation for my acting career.“
While his family settled in Idaho, Thomas kept moving, leaving high school a semester early to travel across the country on a Greyhound bus. He finished his final classes through correspondence courses before attending Bennington College in Vermont.
"Bennington was like a return to a Waldorf-style education," he said. "There were incredible acting classes, and a vibrant avant-garde music scene. I was able to explore many different creative and intellectual interests, but ultimately I felt that I had to pursue my craft in a professional setting. My acting professor told me that I could either go to Hollywood, where I would make money, or go to New York and act. So I moved to New York."
To supplement his acting income Thomas worked for a company that supplied diamonds to Tiffany’s, examining stones, managing diamond cutters, and supervising diamond manufacturing. "Working as a gemologist was exciting," he said. "It offered a window into a very closed world in two ways, since all but one of the diamond cutters in our factory were Hasidic Jews and because buying a diamond, for most people, is a rare occasion, something that they'll only do once or twice in a lifetime.
"One of the more interesting experiences was assisting in the development of gem-quality, man-made diamonds. GE had been making man-made diamonds since the '50s, but no one had manufactured diamonds that could be used in something other than an industrial setting. I worked with the Gemesis Corporation, examining its man-made diamonds and offering feedback, and I was able to watch their progression from highly flawed stones with many color deficiencies to beautiful orange, yellow, and blue diamonds. It’s like acting: you’re looking for the flawless many-sided presentation, but you rarely find it.”
Although working in diamonds was rewarding, Thomas continued to act, working professionally with International WOW and training extensively with the SITI Company. He worked steadily, performing in 10 shows in the year preceding his return to school.
"I still enjoyed acting, but ultimately I felt the need to finish my undergraduate degree," he said. "I wanted to learn and study—but I wanted a top-notch, structured, liberal-arts education. I wanted to enrich my experience and find a way through to something beyond a narrowing professionalism. My brother had attended GS for the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program, and he suggested that I apply.
“GS has fulfilled my desire to go back into the academic world, and it has re-introduced me to the myriad opportunities that await me after graduation. I'm majoring in psychology with an emphasis on early child development. So much hinges upon our childhood experiences and upbringing, so it’s important that we understand the importance of a good beginning to life’s drama and possibilities.
“I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do after graduation — I’m looking into both graduate study in psychology and law school, and I haven’t lost my interest in the theater or in gemology,” he said. In fact, Thomas is still working in the diamond industry and is, he says, “happy to help deserving people find affordable diamonds or just demystify the world of diamonds.” Eventually, he says, “I hope to combine what I’ve learned from the diamond industry and acting with my studies in psychology to create a meaningful career of which I can be proud – the perfect synthesis!”