Jay Liles: From the Woods to the Beach…and Beyond

Joey Lee

June 25, 2024

"If you’re looking for a creative space to be yourself, pursue your work interests and see the world, go to Millsaps."

What can you do with a Millsaps education? If you look at 2005 alumnus Jay Liles’ life, a more accurate question would be, “What can’t you do with a Millsaps education?”

Jay is a modern-day renaissance man with a resume that includes roles such as attorney, surfer, surf instructor, musician, soccer coach and master storyteller. His journey from small-town Mississippi to the sugar-white beaches of north Florida is as intriguing as it is inspiring.

His decision to attend Millsaps was inspired by an influential high school English teacher, an alumnus herself. “She said people at Millsaps liked to think and talk about ideas like I did,” Jay explained.

At Millsaps, he found an academic home where he was challenged and inspired by a host of memorable professors including Dr. Kurt Thaw, Dr. Amy Forbes, Dr. Ming Tsui, Dr. Iren Omo-Bare, Dr. Gail Buzhardt and Dr. Anne MacMaster, many of whom are still teaching today.

In addition to academics and music, Jay was actively involved in extracurricular activities. He played running back for the Majors during his freshman and sophomore years. By his senior year, he represented the off-campus independent students of the Student Body Association, a position that he was appointed to after expressing interest but not formally running for office.

While working a part-time coaching gig at Jackson Preparatory School during his senior year at Millsaps, Jay applied for a full-time job teaching American film at the high school. “During the interview, they asked why I was qualified for the position,” he said. “I told them that I grew up in a video store and still had access to all the old movies to show in class!”

Despite lacking some electives and his senior seminar class, Prep hired him. “At Millsaps, I learned how to learn. The liberal arts degree required us to read a lot of unfamiliar material and discuss it with others,” he explained. “I knew I could read the textbook for the film class and teach it to the students. And because of the flexibility Millsaps gave me to work and be a student, I was in the right place at the right time.”

This marked the beginning of a career weaving a tapestry of diverse interests into what Jay is today, lawyer, musician, surfer, surf and soccer instructor, and master storyteller.

He discovered surfing in San Diego, but it wasn’t until he moved to Florida that he truly learned the sport. “At pickup soccer, I met two guys who became great friends,” he said. “One had an ocean sports camp and the other owned the Red Bar. One taught me to surf and the other gave me a job playing music.”

Playing music is eventually what led Jay to law school. “I released my own version of Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey on iTunes. I had to keep rereading copyright laws and realized I wasn’t confident with my comprehension or speed,” he said. “I figured law school would make me a faster reader and let me get through the crappy stuff like copyright law and get back to the fun of music and surfing!”

Since 2015 Jay has been successfully balancing a legal career with his passions for music and surfing. He approaches law practice with the mindset you would expect of a surfing musician – taking gigs that he enjoys and that come with a smile.

He is also part of the Emerald Coast Storytellers, a group that celebrates narrative art. His story, “How to Get to Europe for $5.60,” is a testament to his adventurous spirit and resourcefulness. His tale, “Jay’s Sh*tty Car,” is another favorite among his storytelling peers, highlighting his ability to find humor and lessons in everyday experiences.

He attributes much of his ability to pursue varied interests to his time at Millsaps, where he found a community of supportive and intellectually curious people. The liberal arts education he received instilled in him the confidence to tackle unfamiliar subjects and thrive in diverse environments.

Jay’s advice for students is grounded in his own experiences. He emphasizes the importance of engaging with professors, both academically and personally, to build meaningful relationships and receive valuable recommendations. He also encourages students to seek out friends and communities that share their interests, as these connections can lead to unique opportunities and lifelong friendships.

Reflecting on his journey, Jay acknowledges that Millsaps cultivated an atmosphere that allowed him to embrace his individuality. The encouragement and support from his professors and peers had a lasting impact on his life, even leading to memorable experiences such as playing music in front of the Duomo in Florence and on the Ponte Vecchio in Italy, thanks to the connections at Millsaps.

Jay explained, “We didn’t have a wave pool or surf club at Millsaps. But we did have a lot of smart professors and students. I was like the elf that wanted to be a dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The students and professors were all the toys pursuing the things they wanted to do, too. We all encouraged each other.”

Jay’s journey from Millsaps to Miramar Beach is a testament to the power of a liberal arts education and the value of following your passions. His story is an inspiration to those who seek to live a life rich with diverse experiences, creativity and a sense of adventure. Whether practicing law, surfing the waves or playing music, Jay embodies the spirit of a true Millsaps alumnus – curious, resilient and endlessly passionate about exploring the world around him.

“Millsaps was the gateway to the rest of the world for me. It gave me the flexibility to pursue work interests as a student and travel to Australia and China,” Jay reflected. “I also enjoyed visiting my friends at other schools in Mississippi on the weekends. But I always looked forward to getting back to Millsaps to be with my professors and friends who really understood me. They helped me pursue music, sports and my other creative interests. So, if you’re looking for a creative space to be yourself, pursue your work interests and see the world, go to Millsaps.”