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High-achieving ASU grad says compassion was key to degree completion

Graduating ASU student Shelly Smith-Phillips poses with her mother at the Kachina Fountain on ASU's Tempe campus. / Courtesy photo

Graduating ASU student Shelly Smith-Phillips poses with her mother in front of Old Main's iconic Kachina Fountain.

April 27, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

A familiar adage says that if you want something done, ask a busy person.

That truism is evident in the life of one of Arizona State University’s newest graduates: Shelly Smith-Phillips, a mom, wife, health care worker and first-generation college student. The Tolleson, Arizona, resident and Barrett, The Honors College member is graduating this spring with two undergraduate degrees — a Bachelor of Arts in English (linguistics) and a Bachelor of Arts in Education, secondary education — as well as a minor in Spanish and a certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

Smith-Phillips is already admitted to the ASU master’s program in linguistics and applied linguistics, where she’ll begin classes in the fall.

While everything is coming up roses now, Smith-Phillips has encountered her share of difficulties along this journey. Hailing from the Maryvale borough of west Phoenix, Smith-Phillips began her education at community colleges within the Maricopa County system. She transferred to ASU in 2017.

First: the challenge of trying to have it all. How does one balance work, home life and school?

“I don't know that I have ever really had true balance between them,” Smith-Phillips admitted.

In 2020, the pandemic arrived with its particularly devastating brand of challenges. Smith-Phillips lost two people close to her — her father and her brother — in a short span of time.

“Losing my brother was extremely difficult for me as we were very close,” she said. “I had to take a semester off and seek out professional counseling. I still struggle with this grief every day.”

She said that while she doesn’t feel that she has fully recovered, she has been able to push through to degree completion with help from the counseling and through support from family, friends and “caring and compassionate professors.”

Marshalling this grief into helping others is Smith-Phillips’ next task; being of service as a teacher is truly her passion.

“I love the look of excitement in a person's eyes when they realize ‘I've got it!’” she said, “or when a student reads a paragraph on their own with little assistance.”

Smith-Phillips nods to the assistance — some of it financial — that she herself has received in achieving her educational goals. She has accumulated a veritable treasure trove of awards, grants and scholarships in her time at ASU, including the Jose Franco & Francisca Ocampo Quesada Research Award, an ASU Passport Scholarship (Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust), a Dougherty Foundation Scholarship, a Desert Financial Credit Union-Adult Learners Scholarship, The College Alumni First Generation Scholarship, a Leland and Nancy Stanley Scholarship and an ASU Follett Book Scholarship.

Before graduation ceremonies kick into high gear, we caught up with Smith-Phillips to find out a little more about what her experience at ASU has been like.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: My "aha" moment came when I was volunteering for my son's marching band team. I used to volunteer with his Boy Scout Troop 669, but the troop had been retired for a year or so. One night during band practice, I realized how much I missed volunteering and helping youth and young adults. It always made me feel good knowing that I was making a difference by assisting in any way I could, whether it be selling candy bars for a fundraiser, passing out band T-shirts or organizing paperwork. I knew I wanted to get back into helping young men and women (students or children) grow and flourish into becoming our future leaders.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: My first semester at ASU I met a classmate that is blind. After sharing a few courses together, I received an opportunity to become a part-time tutor for this student. I accepted the position and really enjoyed my time as a tutor and getting to know and better understand the community of blind and visually impaired students. Through this experience, I started to look at the world around me differently; I started to notice things that would not be issues for a sighted person, but could be for those who are visually impaired. For example, a chair in the hall or walkway or a trash receptacle moved from one side of the room to another could become barriers. Being able to see these things is no big deal, but when something is changed along the path for a visually impaired person, interruptions can occur. I have learned to become more aware of my surroundings and to think more critically when in the company of those without sight.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: There are a few reasons why I chose ASU to complete my educational journey: (1) I am a wife and mother and did not want to uproot my family to attend a school far from our home, (2) I received several scholarships with the biggest one only applying toward an education through ASU, (3) ASU holds a special place for several of my family members, and I wanted to make them proud of the school I was going to graduate from, and (4) ASU is No. 1 in innovation and is home to the Kids at Hope program. With these things in mind, I knew ASU would be a great fit for me.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: This is a tough question to answer. There are several professors that I gleaned wonderful information from, and I would hate to say that one lesson is more important than another. I will say that [Instructional Professional and Director of Internships] Ruby Macksoud taught me to have faith in myself, what I know and in my accomplishments. She also taught me to keep moving forward, to not "reinvent the wheel" unless I have to and to see the good in the simple things and activities.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Never give up! There is always a way. Whether it be finances, hard-to-learn material or being overwhelmed with school and life, there is always something or someone out there willing to help you. Also, don't be afraid or ashamed to ask for help! There is a great chance that whatever you are going through, someone before you went through something very similar and they are willing to share their experience and technique to overcome it with you.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: The ASU Nina Scholars Lounge. It is a quiet and comfortable spot in Discovery Hall especially made for scholars within the Nina Mason Pulliam Scholars Program.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I will take the exam for my Arizona state teaching license and will continue my studies at ASU to complete a master's degree in linguistics and applied linguistics. I will also continue to work in the health care field until I have graduated with my MA.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Another tough question. My first thoughts go to child hunger and homelessness; also clean-water solutions. However, I asked this question to someone close to me, and I believe they made some valid points and here is my takeaway from that conversation: If I had $40 million, I would start a program to combat gun violence. I believe there is a great need for gun-safety education. Guns will always be a factor in society. Even if laws were to change to ban guns, I believe that there are people out there that would still have them illegally. I would propose the completion of educational training and gun-safety programs for everyone who wishes to own a gun. This training would also be open for anyone who wants to learn about firearms. I would work toward stricter background checks, longer wait times for purchasing firearms, and promote responsible gun ownership. I believe education is key to decreasing accidental shootings and increasing awareness of the effects of gun use.

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