Fadulu: I know that you went to Hampton. Were you considering other schools?
Coles James: I was considering other schools at that time. But I had had lots of incredible experience integrating the schools in the city of Richmond and had been through so much in the largely all-white environments that I really felt like I wanted the nurturing, caring environment of a historically black college and university, where I did not stand out as different, where I knew that the professors and instructors had my best interests in mind and at heart. They were committed to my education, and I think by the time I finished at Chandler Junior High School and John Marshall High School, I was ready for that environment. So while I had the opportunity to go to other colleges and universities, I specifically chose Hampton University because it was an HBCU and I wanted that environment.
I wanted to not be one of the two or three black kids in one class; I wanted to experience the rich culture and history and heritage, and I’m grateful for it. It came at a time in my life where I needed that.
Fadulu: Is there anything that you wish college prepared you for in your first jobs after college or your career in general?
Coles James: Well, if you know anything about Hampton University, you know that their motto is “Education for life.” And so at Hampton, not only did we get the academic skills that we needed and the knowledge, but we also got the other training that I think was so helpful for the first job. Hampton was then and probably still is now very strict about dress codes and about demeanor—about how you carry yourself on campus, how you carry yourself in the classroom—which can then translate into a work environment. And quite frankly, I’m not sure I would have gotten as much of that if I had gone to a predominantly white institution.
I think even with my middle-class upbringing, it was good to have those values reinforced, and they have served me well in a work environment. So the education for life that I received at Hampton University was truly that. It was an education for life.
Fadulu: And what was your major?
Coles James: History, secondary education. I studied history, and then [became] involved in public policy and government and watching history unfold before my very eyes.
Fadulu: To fast-forward to your time as director of the Office of Personnel Management, are there any experiences that are memorable to you from that time that maybe changed the way you view work and yourself as a worker?
Coles James: Well, I must confess that I, like everyone else who was around during that period in our country’s history, was affected in all kinds of ways by 9/11. I was the director of the Office of Personnel Management on 9/11. And on that particular day, I think every bit of knowledge, every bit of skill, every experience that I had, had to come together for quick decisions, for processing information, for inspiring a workforce, for coming together after that to figure out a pathway forward for our country. Being a part of standing up the Department of Homeland Security. And so I think every experience that I had had, and every bit of the education that I had, came together, and it was a seminal moment, I think, that changed me, and I think everyone else who was involved, for life.