Story by Emily Mullin | Photos by Julie Van Wagonen and Abby Virbowsky
Throughout the years, thousands of Ohio University students have passed through the gates on College Green, most to graduate and move forward with their lives, some never to return to Athens again. But for some graduates, Athens and the Ohio University community become more than just a temporary residence. Jim Harris is one of those graduates, and for him, Athens is home.
Harris, a 2004 graduate of Ohio University, is currently the assistant director of marketing for the university’s Konneker Alumni Center, and though no longer a college student, he says he can’t imagine living anywhere else but the small, Appalachian college town of Athens.
Harris’ story doesn’t start in Athens, though. In fact, the road to Athens was long – not to mention nontraditional. But Harris says, “I did it my way and I like it.”
Harris grew up in South Jersey and then attended high school in Maryland. He says he was set to go to Washington College, a small liberal arts school in Maryland, but he says, “I knew I wouldn’t fit in there.”
Instead, he decided to move with his parents to Zanesville, Ohio, and attended Ohio University in Zanesville. He quickly discovered, however, that the small branch campus was not for him. “I was not happy there at all,” he says.
From there, Harris transferred to Muskingum Area Technical College to pursue an associate’s degrees in multimedia and marketing. After graduating, he says he took some time off from school to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. During that time, he recalls a visit to Athens and how much he felt at home, despite having lived in so many places before. Since then, he’s always felt a special connection to the city.
“I didn’t know this is what I wanted until I was here,” he says.
Harris had made up his mind. In 2001, he began his studies in business and marketing at Ohio University. But when he graduated in 2004, Harris couldn’t find a job to support himself in Athens. So he picked up and moved again – this time to Jacksonville, Fla. with his parents until he could make a living for himself. Harris said it wasn’t long until he became restless again.
“It was eerie how commercial the area we have lived in was becoming,” he recollects.
The fall after graduation, Harris visited Athens for homecoming in October 2004, thinking the stay would be only temporary. When he returned, he realized that Athens was where he belonged.
“Walking on the streets of Athens, I just thought, ‘this is me,’” he says.
Coming back to Jacksonville was hard for Harris. He told his dad that he couldn’t stay in Florida anymore, and he wanted to move back to Ohio. In December 2004, he made the long drive to Athens — this time for good.
Harris remembers that it wasn’t an easy transition, thought.” He says he was virtually out of a job for six months until he landed a temporary position at Ohio University in May 2005. That short-term job eventually led Harris to a full-time position at the Alumni Relations Office at Ohio University.
Now, Harris says he has a house in Athens and his fiance has also moved to the city to take up a teaching position. “Athens has showed us what life could be like,” he says.
And life for Harris is pretty good.
What Harris says he likes most about Athens is the sense of community. “We’re all in it together, and we all realize it,” he says.
Harris says he finds comfort in knowing his neighbors names and knowing where his food comes from. He likes that Athens has a lot to offer for a small town — a sort of cultural “hub” with everything from ethnic restaurants to independent films and a vibrant music scene.
“To me, Athens is the ideal community. You can do your own thing if you want, or you can be a part of something bigger,” he says.
For Harris, Athens isn’t just a place to live; it’s home.
“I just feel like I can be me.”