But there’s a longer, more complex version to his story.
From 1975 to 1978, the Cleveland native served in the Army, where he was a police officer. After the Army, he continued working as a police officer from 1983 to 1994, first in the Virgin Islands and then in North Bay Village, Florida.
In 1999, having left police work behind and by then operating a custom cabinet business in Miami, Oswald noticed his vision deteriorating. “I originally thought I needed glasses,” Oswald said. “I love to read. Looking at a book, it looked like people had erased parts of the words.”
Within months, he diagnosed with optic neuropathy caused by a vitamin deficiency and for more than a decade has been legally blind. Oswald has central vision loss, less than 20/200 vision in both of his clear blue eyes. “Peripherally, I can see your outline and everything,” Oswald said. “If you’re doing something like winking, smiling, I can’t tell.
Oswald said he initially fought his blindness by seeking solace in the bottle. “I didn’t want to accept it,” he said. In 2002, by then living in New Jersey, where he had moved two years earlier because his then-wife had family here – he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober since.
Through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, Oswald took part in blind-rehabilitation programs, learning independent living and computer skills. Then, from 2005 to 2009, he studied at Middlesex County College and graduated with the highest honors.
"When I studied the liberal arts, I received a well-rounded background,” Oswald said. “I’m a history kind of guy.” So enrolling at Rutgers in 2009, he focused on studying history.
With his life on track, Oswald found himself thinking about his days as a police officer on the U.S. Virgin Islands and the harsh conditions many of the islanders faced. “There was little opportunity there for the lower economic strata,” Oswald said. “[Lack of] education played a large part of that.”
He thought he could rectify similar situations by teaching in an inner city.
“He always knew he wanted to be a teacher (in) kind of a challenging environment,” said Victoria Stone-Cadena, an assistant instructor in the Rutgers Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies, who had Oswald as a student in two classes.
Oswald, a North Brunswick resident, lives on Social Security SSI funding and is carrying $9,000 in college debt. “This is one of the reasons I went back to school,” he said. “I’ve always worked; I don’t want to ride on anybody’s dime.”
Through the Middlesex County Aging and Disability Resource Connection, he has a home aide for six hours a week. He gets around using county or NJ Transit-provided busing, along with rides from friends. He employs various tools to overcome his disability: a computer scanner and a computer program that reads print aloud. The thick lenses of his reading glasses are prisms.
The state Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired provided a reader for him, as well as a computer and assistance with textbook and transportation costs. “There are a lot of services (for the disabled)” at Rutgers, Oswald said. “You have to do the research. You have to work it.”
Based on his experience, Oswald has advice for disabled students.
“I think you have to set reasonable, attainable goals and take advantage of anything that can assist you,” he said. “I think you have to give it back. That’s why I want to teach.”
“The James I met and I had interaction with was consistently a caring, interested, willing go-getter, instead of someone bowled over by an undesired, unfamiliar, uncomfortable and uncertain development,” said Clarence Shive, acting director of the university’s Office of Disability Services.
On March 15, Oswald got word he has been accepted into Teach for America.