When James Payne first came to UNCG, he envisioned majoring in kinesiology. Four years later, he’s not only graduating in his chosen field –he’s doing it with honors.

It’s something he barely could have imagined when he was in high school in Asheville. As the oldest of three boys, he knew he wanted to go to college; the question was how to pay for it.

The UNCG Guarantee became his answer. The Guarantee — started with a $6 million gift by an anonymous donor — provides students from families living at or below poverty level a chance to graduate with little or no debt. James was one of 35 students selected to be a member of the first cohort in 2010.

“I was astounded that they would offer something so amazing,” he said in a 2010 interview. “It was a jaw dropper, to be honest.”

Now he’s walking across the stage and receiving his degree. The feeling? “Like gold.”

“(Early on) my Grandad looked me in the eye and said I would be the first male in my family to graduate. It sent shivers down my spine. I thought, ‘No way I can quit. I’m not letting my brothers down.’”

Not that he ever thought about quitting. All along, James knew he wanted to do what he could to make people better, stronger.

“A physical therapist helps you come through hard times,” he says. While shadowing physical therapists in High Point this semester, he saw the struggle and the triumph of recovery. He also found role models for the kind of therapist he’d like to be. Personable. Caring. Smart.

But achieving that goal won’t end with his UNCG degree. He’s planning to apply to graduate programs for physical therapy. It will be competitive – maybe even as competitive as medical school. As of 2020, physical therapists must have a doctorate to practice.

He’ll be ready. “The kinesiology department here is phenomenal,” he says. He particularly loved Dr. Allan Goldfarb’s exercise physiology class. “It was hard. But the harder it was, the more I enjoyed it.”

And getting a doctorate? James isn’t content to get a master’s degree anyway. “I want to be Dr. Payne before I leave school.”

In addition to focusing on his studies, James found his place at UNCG within Housing and Residence Life. He first worked as a peer academic leader and in other student support jobs before becoming an RA. His life at UNCG has been intertwined with students 24/7, he says. He heard from students at all hours of day and night, whether they needed to talk about the rigors of school or challenges back home.

He loved it.

The mentorship he received through the Guarantee was a model for how he wanted to support other students.

“You need someone who can guide you. I bet I talked to Kristen (Dr. Christman, director of undergraduate student excellence) about a hundred times my freshman year. She was so instrumental to my success,” he says. “You have your doubts, your uncertainties. She would talk you through. I’ve never met anyone who has the heart she has.”

While the Guarantee helps students monetarily, it also provides a variety of opportunities and services to encourage student success in the classroom and in life.

“We went to workshop after workshop,” James recalls. “We went over the number of credits we would need to graduate and learned how to study. It gave us a leg up over other freshmen. There was no way we could fail.”

Then there were the leadership retreats, the trip to Nags Head to clean up debris, working with students at Wiley Elementary School and seeing their eyes light up. “It opened my eyes to what service is. Service is in my blood now.”

James looks back on where he was four years ago, and he doesn’t even recognize himself. If it hadn’t been for UNCG, he wouldn’t have learned as much about perseverance, about having a thirst for knowledge and a fire to achieve.

“The Guarantee became a driving force. (We were told) ‘Now that you have the tools, what are you going to do?’ That inspired a lot of us. We must succeed.”

Story by Beth English, University Relations

Photography by Chris English, University Relations