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Alumnus Abroad

A Q&A with James Toney '01

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    The Toney Family  James Toney with his son, Kendrick, and wife Rochelle.  Courtesy of James Toney
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    Toney with his students    Courtesy of James Toney
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Where were you born? What do you consider your hometown?

I was born on a naval base in Jacksonville, North Carolina. My dad was a Marine. We moved around a lot, so it is hard to answer this question. I spent the most time in Baltimore City and County. My mother now resides in Silver Spring, MD, so I usually start conversations about this question overseas with the answer, “Maryland...outside of D.C.”

Why did you choose to attend William & Mary?

I spent high school in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech. My stepfather worked there. It’s where I played basketball with friends, used the library, hung out… Tech was and is the epicenter of that town. My whole goal in high school was to get good enough grades to go back to Maryland on a full scholarship because I had been obsessed with Maryland basketball since I was little.

It was my guidance counselor who mentioned William & Mary. He thought I had a real chance with my academic record, and thought the small, endearing campus would be a good fit for me. When I told my mother, she said, “Never heard of it. I’m not paying for an application fee to a school I’ve never heard of!” So, I applied out of spite, just to prove that I could get in. I did get a full scholarship to attend University of Maryland, College Park (but only for in-state tuition, which I no longer qualified for), but after seeing W&M’s campus, and that it was a place I could afford to attend thanks to generous scholarships and grants, AND the academic record — no brainer. Being accepted was especially gratifying to announce to all of the friends, family, and even teachers who doubted me!

What was your major? Any particular reasons you chose it?

My intended major was biology when I arrived at William & Mary. Being first generation, I really wanted to do my family proud by becoming what my mother intended me to be—a doctor or a lawyer. Those were signs of success in Ghanaian culture. But after spending many long nights with close friends studying for exams, I really didn’t feel that becoming a doctor was my path. Thanks to the liberal arts opportunities William & Mary provided, I found that I was really enjoying and putting much more effort into all of my other studies. Psychology started to stick out. I did continue taking biology and chemistry classes through my sophomore year to prove to myself I wasn’t just changing my mind because they were too “hard.” Got a 97 on that last chemistry final!

I ended up graduating with a B.S. in psychology, once Tevera Stith ’97 [then assistant to the dean of admission] helped me map out a 4-year course plan during the second semester of my freshman year to make sure I would graduate on time and still include the classes that I wanted to take. I squeezed as wide of a variety of courses that I could get out of that William & Mary education! And thanks to her, I still managed to study abroad AND graduate on time!

Did you have a favorite course while you were at W&M?

Tough. I loved so many. African American music with Prof. Philips my freshman year was the first time in my entire life that I took a class dedicated to people who look like me. It was an awakening. One of my professors wanted to publish my final paper that I wrote for my Affirmative Action elective—passing on this is still one of my life's biggest regrets. Could be a lot worse, right? And drama/theatre—I had no idea that I had a talent for the stage until this course. I still tell my students that you should try a wide variety of activities when you are young to find talents that you may have never known that you had. I didn’t discover a passion for the stage until right before I studied abroad, and I felt that it was a missed opportunity by finding out so late in my education.

Did you study abroad while you were a student? Is so, where and why?

Yes, I went to Adelaide, South Australia. Honestly, my reasoning was a bit embarrassing, but I’ll be honest: when I found out that a kid who started from the inner city and didn’t have a dime to his name could go overseas with a direct tuition exchange, I spun the globe on the second floor of the Reves Center and asked, “How far are you willing to send me?!” Ha! I figured, this might be my only chance to go overseas, so I might as well go as far away as I can and have the experience of a lifetime. I also asked what the English-speaking options were; I’m a talker, and was a little squeamish about trying to survive far from home. And I grew up in a household with two dialects from Ghana along with English being spoken regularly. Seems so silly, looking back.

I still visit friends that I made in Adelaide to this day around the world. I attended my best friend from Adelaide’s wedding just two years ago — 18 years later.

Do you have a favorite memory or memories of your time at W&M?

Too many to count! It’s a cliché to say this, but William & Mary really brought me out of my shell. It shaped who I am today; especially the opportunity to study abroad. I loved being a tour guide. I loved living in Lodge 8 on the back side of the campus center (heard that it’s gone now?). I fell in love for the first time.

Ah, I’ve got one: My friend Jason Sam (’00) and I were co-presidents of the African Cultural Society for two years together. We put together, along with our amazing members, the school’s first African Cultural Night. We thought only 50–70 would show up, and only organized food and drinks for about 100 people. After 150+ people were seated with tickets, I will never forget rushing downstairs to the convenience store outside of Lodge 1 to clear all the snacks and drinks they had off the shelves to stretch out the food and drinks! We danced, we had a fashion show, authentic West African cuisine, acted out an Anansi story. That was a night I’ll never forget, and was probably my proudest achievement while I was there.

What career path(s) have you pursued?

I intended to become a clinical psychologist sometime down the road after I graduated. But I studied abroad 1st semester of my senior year (with special permission from the head of the psychology department), and ended up completely falling in love with living aboard. I had no idea what to do with myself to get back overseas. I rushed an application to the JET Program [an educational and international exchange initiative administered by the Japanese government] days before the deadline, and didn’t even get an interview. Luckily, a friend who graduated came back to campus and talked about his first-year experiences as a Teach for America corps member.

Got me! I did my two year TFA commitment in Los Angeles at Norwood Street Elementary School, falling in love with education and staying on at the school another two years. The international bug was never out of my system, so I ended up re-applying to the JET Program after four years of teaching experience and a master’s degree in Education. They made the right call hiring me (ha), which led to two years living in Japan. Still my favorite country to date; I visit every 1-2 years.

And I’ve been teaching K-12 ever since. A year in Venezuela after Japan. Three years in Doha, Qatar, followed Venezuela. And now I’m at my second school in Singapore: Singapore American School. I’ve been living on this amazing little island for nine years and counting.

Do you have any current projects/passions you would like to share?

Education is my main passion. I’m glad I chose a proactive career path; it fits my personality much better. Instead of waiting for people to come to you after they have problems, why not give them the knowledge to overcome the problems before they arise?

I’ve always loved basketball, and have been coaching ever since I moved overseas in 2005.

How do you think your experience at W&M has affected your life and decisions you have made?

If Chon Glover of the Office of Multicultural Affairs hadn’t talked me into applying to go abroad, I don’t know what I would be doing right now. If I were never given the opportunity to become a tour guide, I never would have come across multitudes of parents who loved me and told me after the tour that their biggest regret was never studying abroad. All of the activities I did at William & Mary built up my confidence to step out into the world and take what I felt I deserved. And if I never took that leap of faith to study abroad, I never would have moved overseas, met my wife, and started my beautiful family. My little boy is 10 months old now.

Do you have any advice for current students?

It’s not just about the academics. Take advantage of EVERY opportunity that presents itself. Make tons of friends, especially older ones; their advice and connections and experiences may prove invaluable. You only get to do college once.

Is there any advice you wish you’d received?

Nope. I listened to the great advice I received while I was there, and succeeded.

Do you think international experience as a student is helpful in future life and career?

I have literally been working overseas for fifteen years. Everyone should study abroad when they have the opportunity. Travel is great, but immersing yourself in a culture for an extended period of time is way better. You get more of the ins and outs, nuances, pros and cons. And maybe you’ll make some friends that last a lifetime.