Class of 2023: With a second bite at the Big Apple, Alex Ames plots a new course at age 32
By Leila Ugincius
They say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. New York. The Big Apple.
But Alex Ames didn’t feel like top of the heap when he left the city in 2018. And he certainly didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.
However, they also say if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
And try Ames did. Now, as he prepares to graduate from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business with a degree in information systems, he’s also preparing to return to New York as an analyst with Bank of America.
Ames started off on the traditional college path when he graduated from Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High School at 18. He had always been a good student, but as a freshman at George Mason University in Fairfax, he started failing multiple classes.
It turns out that – like 20% of teens and 40% of college students in the United States – Ames struggled with his mental health.
“When I went to school, I was so wrapped up in all of that that I just did horribly,” he said. “I failed a lot of classes. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do because I was just dealing with this weight on me as a teenager.”
It took about two years before Ames realized he needed to stop wasting time and money and try instead to focus on his mental health and what he wanted to do. He dropped out of college and then worked in retail for a few years.
At 25, Ames picked up and moved to New York City with two of his best friends. After another year in retail, he found work at a high-end hotel restaurant. “I was a server, but I got to wait on a ton of famous people, and it was just this really cool New York experience,” he said.
But then the struggle of trying to live and survive in New York caught up with him. Why was he there? He wasn’t like many people in the hospitality industry, paying bills while trying to make it big as an actor or model.
“I just was there to be there,” Ames said. “And I kind of got to a point for me where I was like, ‘Why am I going through all this trouble, trying to bust my butt just to make all this money to pay rent? And I can’t really afford to have fun. I can’t really afford to do anything here.’”
So when the opportunity arose to manage a spa in Palm Beach, Florida, he jumped at it. Unfortunately.
“It was just a very, very stressful job. No, it was probably the most stressful job I’ve ever had in my life and just no real direction,” Ames said. “It was a huge learning experience, but ultimately, it was pretty bad.”
While it didn’t seem like it at the time, he caught a break when, after about seven months, his job was eliminated. At his mom’s entreaty, Ames packed up his car and drove 15 straight hours to Richmond … where he slept on her couch, depressed, for three months, working as an Uber driver, a food delivery person and in two retail jobs.
She finally pulled him aside and said, “‘OK, what’s your plan? What are you doing here? You can’t just sit here and be sad. You got to figure something out,’” Ames recalled. “So I realized that if I wanted to live the sort of life that I really saw for myself, I needed to go back to school. I needed to get a degree, and I needed to do something that was going to set me up just with the stability that I wanted.”
He enrolled at John Tyler Community College (now Brightpoint) to earn his associate degree and improve his GPA before attending VCU.
“I just distinctly remember going into that situation and being super-afraid of failure and that I was going to repeat my experience from when I was a teenager,” Ames said.
But that didn’t happen. “Obviously I had much more capacity to do well in this situation. I mean, I think I made A’s in every single class the entire time I was there, the dean’s list. And it was just like this incredibly validating experience.”
This time around, Ames knew what he wanted: stability. He wanted to have a job upon or even before graduating. The best route was with an internship — the “pipeline to a job,” he said.
When he initially left New York at 27, he understood that that chapter of his life was over. He knew he would never go back. But that changed when Ames, now 32, made it to the final round of interviews with Bank of America’s Global Technology Analyst intern program.
“My mind was really that I would either be staying in Richmond or maybe I’d go up to D.C. or something,” he said. “I just wasn’t thinking about New York at all.”
But when offered an internship in the city that had once been his home, it actually felt right. “It just sort of felt meant to be. And so I just went for it,” Ames said. “And it actually wound up being an incredible experience.”
As it turns out, his previous experiences that led him here were not wasted time. Ames stressed to his interviewers that he did not want to sit at a computer all day. He didn’t want the time he worked in retail and hospitality learning how to deal with people to be in vain.
“I need a job that’s going to marry the skills that I picked up all that time doing these other things,” Ames said. “I felt like my manager just really, really listened to that [by placing] me on the trading floor of 1 Bryant Park … where all the action is” in the Bank of America Tower.
“I was even concerned going back to New York that it was going to feel weird or I felt out of place,” he said. But it was like he had never left. “It was almost like I had just been there the whole time. And I mean, it was just a completely seamless experience. And it really just solidified that I was on the right path.
“And, you know, when the internship ended, they offered me a job,” Ames said “I had such a great experience at the internship, I didn’t even really hesitate. Because I just knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.”