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Posted 11/17/2017

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By Tim Oberle, USACE Mobile Public Affairs

MOBILE, Ala. - U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Mobile District Water Management Chief James Hathorn, Jr. grew up in the lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, La., a tough inner-city community with plenty of distractions that could have led him down the wrong path. Despite the negative influences that surrounded him, Hathorn managed to stay on the straight and narrow thanks to a strong familial support system and the willingness of community leaders to invest time in his development.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where it was best that you travel with friends,” Hathorn recalled. “You had family and community unity, but at the same time you saw a lot of violence that a child shouldn’t see. [Fortunately] I was introduced to the Boy Scouts and I had two scout leaders who were essentially [additional] father figures. They provided us guidance on everything from survival skills, to maintaining pride in your appearance.”

As a result of the positive example his mentor’s set for him, Hathorn has gone out of his way as an adult to return the favor. In his spare time he regularly volunteers with youth sports, the Cub Scouts, his church, various career fairs and local schools. One particular area that he stresses when he spends time with students is the importance of learning science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Christopher Lang, a mathematics and robotics teacher at Williamson High School and Middle School Preparatory Academy in Mobile, Ala., was the recipient of many of those STEM lessons and explained how it had an impact on his life.

“I have known him since I was 5 years old,” said Lang. “I actually grew up with his kids. He got us involved in a lot of different activities that promoted STEM. Even when we were at his house… we weren’t just sitting there watching TV. We had different experiments that we would do.”

Those lessons paid off for Lang who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and is working on a master’s in engineering. For Mobile District Chief of Staff Kristina Mullins, motivating young people like Lang to pursue STEM-related careers is vital to our nation’s success. 

“Innovation drives much of our country's success and certainly shapes our future and engineers and scientists are critical elements to [that],” said Mullins.  “Inspiring school-age children and teenagers to consider these career options is something that can’t be overdone.” 

In addition to his lessons on STEM, Hathorn teaches young people the importance of leadership and volunteering in the community.

“He has also done a great deal to help me develop leadership skills, team-working skills, and taught me to always give back,” Lang said. “He’s just that type of guy and those are the features that he likes to pass on to help uplift the community.

While all of his lessons are important, if his pupils only take one thing away from his presentations Hathorn hopes it is the confidence to always do your best and to never give up.

“I try to teach them that you are always a winner if you give 100%,” he said. “If they fail I encourage them to keep trying, because when they finally figure out the problem it drives them to take on the next challenge.”

Surprisingly, Hathorn says it’s not always the positive lessons that help instill that confidence.

“They want to hear how you overcame adversity,” he explained. “I guarantee someone in that audience is going through something challenging and they need that encouragement and the confidence to keep moving forward. So I tell them… that I failed English three times as a college freshman and that I got a 16 on the ACT. But I also tell them that I was able to overcome those setbacks and still become the first person in my family to get an engineering degree.”

For Hathorn, is was his strong “village” of mentors who helped him build the confidence to keep fighting through the tough times and stay on the right path. Understanding how vital it is to have that community of support, he encourages others to look for ways to give back.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where you heard gun shots every day and you had to always be aware of your surroundings, but I didn’t allow myself to take that life,” he said. “And it was the encouragement of my mentors telling me that I didn’t have to settle for the negative that made a difference. That’s why it is so important that people like myself be willing to give back because we have so much to offer.”

(Frank Sanchez III contributed to this story)