Thanks to a good number of AP courses in high school, Ryan James is a senior as he begins his third year at East Tennessee State University. The Kannapolis, North Carolina, native is a pre-med student double-majoring in health sciences and exercise science and plans to graduate in the spring of 2022 before attending medical school through the U.S. military and becoming a trauma surgeon. As an Expedition Leader for ETSU, James is excited to be helping prospective students and their families learn more about the university now that campus tours have started back up as part of the reopening process during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, he is active with the Baptist Collegiate Ministry and is gaining valuable leadership and organizational skills as a vice president within his fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi. James, who believes in making the world a better place by trying to do at least one good thing and making one person smile each day, enjoys working out, playing guitar, spending time with friends, and being outdoors – hiking, hunting and fishing – during his spare time.
What drew you to ETSU?
My brother came here to play football in the second year after the football program started back up. When I went through the college application process, I applied to 11 schools. Then when I learned that I met the requirements for the majority of my AP credits to transfer to ETSU and was able to get the help I needed through Financial Aid and Scholarships, it really did make it a good, clear choice, especially with me being from out-of-state.
What do you like most about ETSU?
I would say – and I do say this especially when I give campus tours – one of the things I really love is our bond. We are like a large university with a small university feel, and we’re all one big family here. We have people from around 76 different countries and 46 states coming in this year, if I remember correctly, and even though we all come from different walks of life, we all come here and we’re all Buccaneers. We all bleed Blue and Gold.
What led you to become an Expedition Leader, and what do you enjoy most in that role?
I came up for an orientation, and the Admissions Ambassadors, as the Expedition Leaders were known at that time, were walking around, helping people out with different things and giving tours. And actually, my mom leaned over to me and said, “You could do that!” So that kind of got the wheels rolling in my mind. I applied and interviewed to do that my freshman year, and I’ve been with them ever since. I held a leadership role in the organization this past school year, and so I’ve gotten to see both sides – being a member and then being on the leadership team. I would definitely say my favorite thing is just helping the students feel a bit more at ease with the whole college transition process. When I first came here, I knew two other people – one was my brother and the other was a girl who went to my high school. I was the biggest introvert and wouldn’t talk to anybody. And so I understand the stress in the transition to college, moving away from family for the first time and just taking that next step. I try to ease the students’ minds and joke around with them. I tell them I know it’s a big scary world out there, but college is kind of like adulthood, but with the training wheels still on.
Tell us a little bit about your early life.
I came from a middle-class family in a small little farm community. My mom worked with Bank of America, and my dad was a sheriff’s deputy in Cabarrus County. You kind of grow up fast whenever your father is a sheriff’s deputy. You don’t know if he’ll be there whenever you wake up. My grandparents lived right down the road. We had horses, and we had a garden every year. After a hiatus, we actually just started the garden back up this year. I enjoyed little league baseball while I was growing up, and I played football in high school. I ended up switching from football to track because it was less time-consuming.
What challenges have you overcome to get to where you are today?
Well, actually, day one was a struggle. I was born a “blue baby.” When I was in the womb, my umbilical cord had become wrapped around my neck, and I had to be delivered via C-section. I had to go through physical therapy to learn how to roll over and walk and do all the normal stuff that infants and toddlers do.
Then, around my fifth grade year, my dad was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. I’ve learned a lot about Dad’s disease from one of the researchers here. I researched with Dr. Yongke Lu (in the Department of Health Sciences), and we talked a lot about it because he studies the liver in great detail. I learned that it’s a genetic thing that either affects the liver or the lungs.
On Good Friday of that year, Dad received the call to get a liver transplant. That was another point in my life where we all had to band together, because here was a man who would go into situations as a police officer showing no fear. You think he’s a man of steel, and he was basically cut in half with the liver transplant. That made me grow up really fast. I’m the youngest of three brothers, and luckily, I was old enough to somewhat understand what was going on, but still young enough to be kind of naïve to the whole severity of the situation.
Now, he’s doing great, but at that time, we had to make a big shift from “normal life” and look carefully at what we could do. He couldn’t go fishing anymore then because of the germs and bacteria, and that kind of broke my heart – I really like to go fishing. In the wintertime, we’d try not to get the flu, because if someone with a liver transplant and a compromised immune system gets the flu or anything else, it’s extremely hard to fight off. I was kind of doing COVID precautions before they were cool!
I like how you put that. Let’s talk a bit about the pandemic. How did the COVID-19 pandemic personally affect you as a student, and what is one of the most important things you have learned through this experience?
Since a lot of exercise science classes have online options that I take advantage of from time to time, the transition to online classes in the spring was easy for me, compared to somebody who was used to all in-person classes and had to suddenly switch. I kind of knew how everything worked and was able to help others. I was able to say, “You know, I’ve taken a couple of these classes. If you guys have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I can help you get through if you’re kind of unsure how to navigate Zoom or the D2L page or whatever. I’ll try to help you the best way I can.”
Personally, I learned a lot more about my resiliency. I also learned that although I like to believe I’m a pretty independent person, family does matter. Connections with others do matter, whether you are seeing them physically or not. We would have Zoom meetings with our fraternity or with our friends just to keep those connections alive, for lack of a better term. And since I live in an off-campus apartment in Johnson City the majority of the year, going back home was a big shift; it was almost like I was back in high school again.
How did you choose your majors?
Health Sciences really drew me in with the concentration in human health, because of my dad getting his liver transplant, and his dad actually had a lot of heart problems, too. I saw the side of the medical field where you can feel helpless, like you’re a single raindrop in the midst of an ocean. I decided I want to be the person who is able to help somebody who is on that side of the coin, somebody who can give that person hope, and somebody who can kind of ease another’s pain.
I didn’t want to end college too soon and be taking the MCAT and starting medical school after only three years, so I added exercise science as a second major, because that would give me the hours I needed to get over the hump to four years. A lot of the classes intertwine with the health sciences.