From ‘Thug to Scholar’

By MJ Slaby of the Knoxville News Sentinel (copyright 2016, used with permission)

Most people wear a “mask” as a way to hide, but removing that mask is the path to success, according to James Williams, an assistant professor at the University
of Tennessee.

Williams said wearing a mask means a person lives to others’ standards instead of their own. For him, that meant he wore a “thug mask” as a teen and young adult, even becoming affiliated with gang members while living in North Carolina. But after a life-changing moment, he was able to remove his mask, leading to a life in education.

James Williams

He’s sharing his advice and story in the classroom and through a second edition of his book, “From Thug to Scholar: An Odyssey to Unmask my True Potential.”

“We all wear a mask, and some of us never figure it out,” said Williams, who teaches in retail, hospitality and tourism management at UT.

Williams said his book release comes at a time when its message is especially relatable as Knoxville battles gang violence.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.

Williams said gang violence is misunderstood because various factors come into play. Joining gangs isn’t just about economic status; people join because they don’t
feel valued, he said.

Growing up, Williams said he was “a thug” who was constantly in trouble at school, was a teen father and dealt drugs. But he said it was all because he wanted to be valued.

“In the back of my mind, I was always chasing something,” he said.

A dream of playing professional football helped Williams graduate and go to college, but when he didn’t play his freshman year at Methodist University in North Carolina, he said he turned to old habits, became affiliated with a gang and nearly shot someone.

“When I almost took someone’s life, I saw my life, his life, (and thought) what can I do to change?” Williams said.

So he joined the Air Force, where met his wife LaToya, and earned several college degrees. He even fulfilled his dream of playing football and played for two years for the former arena team, the Raleigh Rebels.

Fighting against gang violence comes down to helping others to feel valued and offering compassion, Williams said. In the classroom and conversation, he does that by dedicating his full attention to his students as well as encouraging them to do the same.

He starts classes with a quote, asking students to close notebooks and laptops to think about the meaning. Last week, Williams used a quote by Lee Segall: “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.”

“Do you think this has a relation with focus?” Williams asked the students. “If you put all of your energy and time into one thing, you can truly be effective and efficient. …Your time is the most valuable, not money.”

Williams said he wants his students to use their education, personally and professionally. He said learning is a continual process.

“Education is about more than concepts,” Williams said. “It’s more about developing who you are as a person.”

Photography by Dani Rose (’08)

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