T-shirts help WSU student find his voice, help others

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldDecember 17, 2012 

James Thoul said it all started with the International Club at Southridge High School during his junior year.

Everyone was making T-shirts showing where they came from -- be it a nation in Latin America, Africa or Asia.

Problem was, Thoul is from South Sudan, which until 2011 wasn't an independent nation.

So the 19-year-old found a more straightforward way to voice his identity: He emblazoned a shirt with the phrase "I'm James."

"People started making their own, and then I started making them," said Thoul, now a sophomore at Washington State University in Pullman.

What became something of a cult trend at Southridge is now trendy in Pullman, with Thoul making and selling the shirts for $13 to professors, classmates and university athletes.

The T-shirts have been great for helping Thoul meet people and build relationships. But the sales also are doing some good, with all the profits going toward charity, an act that does not surprise those who know him.

"James isn't a person to ask if he can help. He'll just start helping," said Sondra Edwards, a Southridge math teacher.

Thoul's cross country teammates first made the T-shirt viral, after seeing Thoul wear it one day at practice. Soon after, a few of them showed up wearing versions they made, and other T-shirts began to pop up throughout the school from there on out.

Thoul, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt with his family when he was 11, said the earliest versions of his shirt were made by their wearers, but he eventually starting making them with a permanent marker and giving them out.

Edwards was one of the recipients of those hand-lettered T-shirts. She ended up being an adviser for the I Am James Club, a service club Thoul started.

"James is just a very charismatic young man," she said. "He always had a smile on his face."

Thoul brought shirts -- which now are made with a screen printer -- to WSU Pullman in fall 2011. He sold five during the week before classes started, according to a release from the university, with Thoul adding it was a great way to introduce himself.

Abigail Higgins was one of the Cougars to get one of Thoul's shirts. She said Thoul, wearing his "I'm James" T-shirt, stood out in the class of 111 students she walked in to teach.

"I love how James took a simple shirt and a simple design and turned it into something that makes people smile and gets them talking," she said.

At the end of his freshman year, Thoul said, he donated $200 in profits to the Whitman County Food Bank. He's now sold more than 100 T-shirts while at WSU, and sales are going strong, as evidenced by the increasing number of shirts appearing around campus. Thoul said he hadn't decided whether to donate again this coming spring, as he needs money to keep up with the demand for shirts.

Edwards said she sometimes sees one or two of the T-shirts in the Southridge's hallways. She knows it's not just because it was a cool thing to do when Thoul was a Sun -- it's because of who he is.

"We were laughing the other day," she said. "James has a signature yell. They're going to yell it when they see him at WSU."

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