College News

Career path leads CCCC's James Thomas back home

05.12.2020 • College & Community, College General, Students/Graduates

SANFORD -- His career path took plenty of unexpected twists and turns, not to mention stops over hundreds of miles. But when James Thomas finally arrived at his destination, he found himself right back where he started.

Thomas is assistant director of YouthBuild, a job training program at Central Carolina Community College that accepts students who have dropped out of school and helps them earn both a high school credential and college career certification -- all while contributing to the community by helping build Habitat for Humanity homes.

It's a job he loves. Thomas says he is fully invested and doesn't see himself doing anything else for the foreseeable future. It's also a job he never envisioned when he arrived at the college as a student, planning to pursue a degree in business administration.

"Mostly, I wanted to go to college, but stick around home and have that support network -- to get my feet wet and figure out what college was all about," he recalls. "After about a year, I guess, I changed my mind and decided of all the things I wanted to do, I wanted a degree in religious studies."

That took him on the road to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee for a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and then Emory University in Atlanta, where he earned his Master of Theological Studies. While in graduate school, Thomas completed a professional development elective designed to help students decide how to use their degree after graduation.

For their project, Thomas and a friend designed a course in literature and religion, and then taught it at a women's correctional facility nearby. The experience changed his life. "I fell in love with teaching and that lit a fire under me," he says. So much so that he arranged an independent study course to analyze teaching in correctional settings and how education might reduce the likelihood that people will later return to prison.

So, while taking some time off back home in Sanford between his master's and doctorate, Thomas jumped at a chance to combine his new interests and work as a substitute teacher and testing administrator at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington. That temporary job with CCCC turned into a full-time job and eventually landed him in YouthBuild.

It may not seem like the most direct path, but Thomas says YouthBuild is yet another way that education can help people transform their lives. "I've seen first-hand how important educational opportunity is for folks, how life-changing it can be," he explains. "Most of our students have lost a lot of opportunities, but they are some of the most resilient and most intelligent, capable people I have ever met in my life.

"Watching them go from the situations they're in to become highly successful -- watching them do well -- it sounds selfish, but it's the most fulfilling thing I can imagine doing."

Lindsay Tipton appreciates the impact education has on students, too, but the program director for YouthBuild doesn't want people to underestimate the how important Thomas has been. It's not because of his experience years ago as a student, though it certainly helps when "he knows everyone," but it's who Thomas is and what he has learned along his own journey.

"James is a huge asset to our program," Tipton says. "He has a stronger work ethic than most people I know. In every action he takes with the college, he truly cares. He cares about whether or not each decision is morally and ethically right, and he cares deeply about how everything he does impacts our students and the greater college community."

Looking back, it's almost as if, all along, he was headed back home.

To learn more about Central Carolina Community College, visit

Career path leads CCCC's James Thomas back home

James Thomas (left) and Lindsay Tipton (right) work with the Central Carolina Community College YouthBuild Program.