A Contemporary Odysseus: His Journey from Thug to Scholar
“Ask purposeful questions. Why are you doing what you are doing?” For Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management professor Dr. James Williams, life changed when he began asking purposeful questions.
Life was not always easy for Williams. Growing up in Massachusetts and later in North Carolina, Williams began engaging in dangerous behavior at an early age. For Williams, adolescence involved sex, drugs, and street fighting. He recalls, “I realized that if you got in trouble, you were recognized. People liked you. In my town, it was the drug dealers who lived in impoverished neighborhoods that got all of the attention. So, I continued to adopt this tough guy persona so that people would like me. I wanted to be recognized.”
School became a nesting ground for bad behavior and illegal activity. Drugs and gangs were prevalent in the area, and Williams found himself swept away by the thug mentality. He admits, “Even when I was doing wrong, I always knew it wasn’t of God. I knew right, but I did wrong because I wanted to fit in with my peers.”
At the age of 16, Williams had his first child, and by age 17, he had a second child. Throughout all the tumult with gangs, sex, and violence, the one constant in life was his passion for football. Unfortunately, Williams did not qualify for any scholarships because of low SAT scores and a low grade point average. Instead, Williams attended a small Methodist college—an opportunity that he planned to embrace. He explains, “I felt like I had the opportunity to change who I was—but the problem was that I came in with the mindset that I just wanted to play football and go pro. I wasn’t there for school.”
Disinterest in courses led Williams to begin engaging in dangerous activity again. Involvement with a gang that almost resulted in near deadly violence forced Williams to realize that he needed to make a drastic change. “I left college, and immediately enlisted. That was the start of my transformation,” he says. “When I entered the military, I went in with the mindset that I was no longer a thug or a football player, I went in knowing that I needed to find who James Williams really is.”
While in the military, Williams was encouraged to go back to school and earn a degree, which he did. He began taking courses at Park University in January 2001 and graduated cum laude in May 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Management and Computer Information Systems—earning 80 credits in just two and a half years.
After graduating from Park University in 2003, Williams began working as an adjunct professor at a community college while also pursuing his Master of Science in Administration from Central Michigan University.
After completing his Master’s program, Williams realized he still had a passion for football and wanted to play professionally. After a few disappointments at local combines, Williams signed a two-year contract with the Raleigh Rebels arena football team in North Carolina.
During his time playing with the Raleigh Rebels, Williams began working on his Doctorate in Management and Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. He says, “During the pursuit of my doctorate, I was focused on climbing the corporate ladder, which I eventually realized I did not want to do forever. So, I began working at a middle school. It was there that I discovered my passion for teaching."
Determined to become a professor at a traditional brick and mortar, Williams enrolled in a Ph.D program in Hospitality Management at Iowa State University. “I just decided to bottle up all my fear—and luckily my wife was supportive. As a family, my wife and I decided we needed to move our family to Iowa so that I could pursue my dream of becoming a professor.”
Now, working as an Associate Professor in the School of Hospitality, Sport, and Recreation Management, Williams’s dream has become a reality. He admits, “Initially, I thought Corporate America was the place for me. But as I continued to climb that ladder, I realized I was not pursuing my real dream. I wanted to inspire and motivate people. And educate them. In order to find true happiness, my paradigm had to shift.”
In addition to his professorship, Williams is also in the process of publishing a book called From Thug to Scholar: An Odyssey to Unmask my True Potential. Set to be released on October 31, 2013, the book details James’s transformative journey and encourages others to seek true happiness in life. When asked about the subject of the book, Williams describes the concept of masking, or hiding your true identity behind a façade—an idea that he battled in young adulthood but has now successfully overcome. Through his book, Williams wants to share his message and help motivate others to unmask themselves. He advises, “Do not be afraid to continue to work towards that final goal, even if people think it is crazy. Because you have to be happy and you have to stay motivated every day of your life in order to meet your true potential and find lasting happiness.”