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Master of his authenticity: Alumnus Kevin Phillips finds himself while earning his degree

According to Kevin Phillips, he didn’t grow up according to a regular timeline. Sure, he joined the military as a teenager, worked in factory jobs and then retail for nearly 20 years. Got married, became a carpenter and then earned his associate degree in apprenticeship technology. But he didn’t feel truly grown up until, well, now.

“It finally happened at 60 years old,” Phillips says with a laugh. “I’m actually starting to feel like an adult now who’s comfortable in his own skin.”

Phillips owes his scenic route to a number of factors, like dropping out of school between his sophomore and junior years of high school and having what he calls a midlife crisis before learning carpentry. But, more than anything, his journey took a little longer because he was never quite sure who his authentic self was. He wasn’t sure, that is, until he went to University of Phoenix.

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Bridging two worlds

Phillips grew up in a predominantly Black community in Detroit at a time when being biracial was uncommon and, in his case, confusing.

“People always wanted me to make a choice: ‘Do you embrace your White side more, or do you embrace your Black side more?’” Phillips recalls.

He responded by choosing, at least on some level, his father’s side.

“There was a stigma associated with having fair skin,” he says. “I even experienced a time when I was uncomfortable being out with my own mother in public, because she’s White, and for a period of time, I just didn’t want to be associated with that.”

His parents’ divorce when Phillips was in ninth grade only intensified the chasm. It also created a period of instability that defined Phillips’ life trajectory. He and his four brothers had always been encouraged to apply themselves in school and do well. But when his parents divorced, suddenly the support and motivation were gone, and Phillips and his brothers floundered for lack of direction.

 

"I thought I was pursuing college to increase my income level. Little did I know that I would find my true self."

Kevin Phillips
Bachelor of Science in Business | 2023

Eventually, Phillips earned his GED diploma and enlisted in the Army. He found his footing and made friends, but it wasn’t a perfect fit: Phillips carried a lot of anger and resisted the hierarchy and orders inherent to military service. On the pro side, he learned structure and teamwork.

“I learned a lot,” he quips. “I just didn’t know I had learned it until later.”

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Jack of all trades

The skills Phillips picked up in the military would carry him through the ensuing 20 years when he primarily worked in retail. Moving from company to company, he found his skills and personality positioned him for promotion with relative ease. His lack of a degree, however, held him back.

“I could make supervisor easily, but I could never get above that, and it seemed like education was the stumbling block,” he explains. “Once I started hitting that ceiling, then I would become disenchanted.”

Eventually, Phillips had what he calls a midlife crisis. It was an echo of the instability that shook his world when his parents divorced. He decided to leave retail, where he’d reached a professional dead end enough times to know it wasn’t going to change unless he changed something, and become a journeyman carpenter.

As a journeyman carpenter, Phillips acquired several years of apprenticeship and earned an associate degree. He liked the work but didn’t love the lack of stability. Eventually, he began casting about for the next step. He found it at Comcast. 

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A life-changing decision

While Phillips knew Comcast could be a good career move for him, it took a little wooing to get Comcast on board.

“It took me a year and a half to get in the company,” Phillips says. “Five interviews at two different offices before I finally got lucky with the local office.”

It wasn’t all luck, though. Phillips brought with him a strong work ethic and a growth mindset — even if he didn’t know what the latter really meant.

“I am motivated by learning and I possess a growth mindset, traits I knew I had but didn’t really understand,” Phillips says.

He had the opportunity to find out when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. He describes that period as an alignment of circumstances that nudged him to finally take the next step in his career and life.

The pandemic had him working remotely, his company was promoting an alliance with University of Phoenix (UOPX) to offer affordable education to employees, and there was a recent push for diversity, equity and inclusion at work. It had him rethinking opportunities. The result? He enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Business program at UOPX.

The road to self-discovery

Phillips figured earning his bachelor’s degree would help him in his career. He also knew Comcast, with its tuition assistance, would help him pay for school.

“The only out-of-pocket expenses I had were to upgrade my computer and purchase a laptop,” Phillips says.

Find out if your employer is one of the more than 1,500 organizations University of Phoenix works with to offer education benefits. 

What Phillips didn’t expect was to find himself during his studies.

“I thought I was pursuing college to increase my income level,” Phillips observes. “Little did I know that I would find my true self.”

For starters, Phillips discovered his mentorship ability. “Kevin’s drive and determination, his desire to better himself and those around him, instilled in me the trust and motivation to rethink and expand my career goals,” says Freddie Jones, a colleague and mentee of Phillips’.

Phillips took Jones under his wing and encouraged him to go for the other open network maintenance position that Phillips had earned. Jones got it.

“Kevin exudes positivity and a growth mindset,” Jones says. “He approaches problems as challenges rather than obstacles. … I never saw myself in [this role] until Kevin started encouraging me to step out of my self-imposed box.”

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The mentorship mandate

Phillips and his wife

 

Jones wasn’t the only one to reframe his perspective. Phillips points to changing his thought patterns as a critical step in changing his life. He’d always thought buying a house was out of his reach, for example. But as he took financial classes during his degree program, he began to change his perspective. He learned about credit scores, personal finance and how to research topics like home loans he might qualify for.

The result? He and his wife of 37 years just purchased their first home..

This open-mindedness trickled down to other areas of Phillips’ life as well. Instead of giving up or blaming others when faced with a challenge, Phillips says he now focuses on finding solutions. And that extends to the very essence of who he is, the divide he felt as a child.

“University of Phoenix gave me the knowledge that it’s OK to be my authentic self,” Phillips explains. “I’m Black and White. I embrace both sides. In the past, I may have adopted a persona that I thought you expected of me. Now, I feel comfortable just being me.”

Perhaps that’s why his degree is so much more than an academic accomplishment. “It’s a Bachelor of Science in Business,” Phillips acknowledges, “but it’s also a Bachelor of Science in life.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.

 

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