Jeramiah Phillips didn’t let adversity overcome or overwhelm him on the journey to his degree; in fact, challenges have encouraged him to pursue graduate school.
“If you're going through hell, keep going.”
When Jeramiah Phillips lost both his parents in less than a year's time, he relied on 60-hour work weeks and heavily scheduled school semesters to keep going. His stepfather died of heart failure in August 2021; his mother was diagnosed with cancer the following month. She passed away in January 2022, and Jeramiah has been taking classes nonstop ever since.
“I overloaded myself with classes to keep myself distracted and worked more than usual because I needed to keep my mind off what was happening at the time. I have been going continuously since then, sometimes 15-16 hours a semester,” Jeramiah said.
As a 38-year-old predominantly online student managing two locations of Firehouse Subs, Jeramiah's biggest concern when it came to his education was flexibility and the ability to work and go to school at the same time. His Bachelor of Arts in University Studies degree from Texas Tech University was facilitated through its Waco site after graduating with an associate degree from McLennan Community College (MCC), where Texas Tech's site is located.
Jeramiah was attracted to the online program not only for convenience, but also for the ability to build his degree. University Studies allows students to create a degree plan that caters to their needs, wants and educational abilities by assembling three concentration areas from a wide variety of disciplines. He was able to make it all work, graduating in December with the honor of being the commencement banner bearer for University Studies.
“Some students like me can be confused about what they must concentrate on regarding a major,” he explained. “My concentrations were communication, human resource management and organizational leadership. I feel these three areas came together to make one great degree for me.”
But getting to this point in Jeramiah's story takes an understanding of how he got to Waco and connected – and reconnected – with MCC and Texas Tech in the first place.
Jeramiah's family moved from Pittsburgh to Waco, Texas, in 1999 just before he started high school. He began taking dual credit courses at MCC his senior year, graduating in the top 20% of his class in 2003. As parents sometimes do, his mother had a plan for him after high school, which was to attend Texas State Technical College to become a dental assistant.
He complied for a year after his high school graduation, and in the beginning, he loved it, but eventually realized the medical field was just not for him. He became what he describes as “a regular career-college student,” meaning he would take classes and then take time off to try to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
After that year, Jeramiah took a tangent and moved to Arizona, where his parents had relocated to tend to a family medical matter, staying for almost 10 years. He returned to Waco in 2013, which to him, was home all along.
Laying his education aside for quite some time, Jeramiah finally felt drawn to complete his degree, noting MCC had been a kind of constant in his life since high school.
“This time when I returned to school in 2020, I was on a mission to complete my degree,” he said. “This was something I felt was missing in my life, and I'd made a promise to my mother that I would finish. After I earned an associate degree in general academics, I transferred to Texas Tech in 2022, and at the same time, returned to MCC to earn another degree in communication studies. So now I have earned three degrees, after graduating from Texas Tech in December.”
But he almost didn't.
In 2021, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he was attending MCC part-time while working, but when her cancer worsened at the end of 2021, he went full-time and continued to go to classes while working. It became his personal mission to get it done before she passed to prove to her he could do it.
“When my mother passed away, I was working on completing my degree, but I almost didn't make it,” Jeramiah explained, a somber look crossing his face. “It took the MCC counselors and my professor's support to help me keep going. Without them, I wouldn't be here today.”
Living and working in Waco, it was easy to access Texas Tech through its location and partnership with MCC, one of several Texas Tech sites across the state.
Missing the support of his parents this past year, Jeramiah leaned heavily on the staff and mostly on his adviser, Annalisa Clark. Without her guidance and support, he says he would have been lost.
Annalisa met Jeramiah before his last semester at MCC to map out his transfer plan to Texas Tech upon the completion of his associate degree.
“He had lost both of his parents around the time that I met him, and I deeply admire his continued positive outlook on life, even with having to carry that incredible heartbreak and still move forward,” Annalisa said. “Dealing with the recent loss of my own father, I look at Jeramiah's positivity and compassion as something to aspire to. It's so easy to go the negative route when grieving the loss of a loved one, but he's maintained this focus on the desire to better himself and his community.”
Annalisa added that Jeramiah is a great example for all current and future distance learning, online and hybrid students as he has truly shown “From Here, It's Possible™,” pointing out that he, along with the majority of Waco's regional site and online students, was full-time in his studies and his job.
“Juggling full-time work and school is challenging, but the flexibility that our online degrees offer these students allows them to get their degree from home and continue to support themselves and/or family,” Annalisa said. “The honor of being named a banner bearer for your college is not an easy feat; it takes great dedication and effort to reach. Jeramiah showed us that with dedication, determination and effort, your goals can be discovered and fulfilled with Texas Tech University, from the main campus or the comfort of your living room.”
That flexibility was one of the very things that helped him most to be successful, along with the ability to manage his degree. It was up to him to decide how many classes he could handle and how intense the course load should and could be.
The heavy course loads Jeramiah endeavored to take would have been much more difficult without the other supporters in his academic circle – his instructors and professors. Without hesitation he named the group who helped him keep going: James Childers, Liz McNaughtan, Stella Zaragoza, Katherine Schoonover and Morgan Provost.
“I want them to know I appreciate them; more people need to tell each other they understand one another because life is short, and people who touch our lives in specific ways must be respected and appreciated,” he said.
Provost, Jeramiah's lecturer in Human Resource Development, knew early on he was someone special. She first encountered him in her class in 2022; Jeramiah explained that he was going back to school after spending a number of years in the workforce because his mother, who had passed away in January, had always wanted him to finish college.
“He continued to reach out to me for help or clarification throughout the semester, which I greatly appreciated,” Provost said. “In addition, he did a great job of applying what he had learned about that week to his personal and professional experiences, and he left valuable and constructive feedback for his classmates that improved the class discussion.”
When Jeramiah asked Provost about taking another class of hers this past fall, she not only remembered him but was thrilled. She knew he would get a lot out of the class itself, but she also knew he would be an excellent role model for her other students. As she anticipated, he was not only a pleasure to have in the class, but he ended the semester with a well-deserved A+.
“Jeramiah didn't earn his A+ because he got a perfect score on every assignment,” Provost explained. “I required the same amount of care and attention from him as I did from all of my students and when he deserved a B, that is what he received. However, he took advantage of all extra-credit opportunities, and he went over and above what was required for the weekly assignments. It was that hard work and dedication that earned him such a high grade in my course.”
To all who helped him keep going, Jeramiah says he honors the knowledge he gained from them and will continue to push himself to greater heights and possibilities in the future.
With that mindset guiding him, Jeramiah finished with a perfect 4.0 GPA and graduated summa cum laude. He was excited to lead his class into the arena bearing the banner for University Studies at the Dec. 15 ceremony in Lubbock, looking at it as “victory after the battle” of sorts, which made him feel honored to be chosen.
Jeramiah's long-term goal is to land a position with the Firehouse Subs corporate office in Jacksonville, Florida. He has been with the company for six years as of January 2024, running multiple stores. He would welcome the opportunity to move up in the company; so much so that he applied to graduate school at Texas Tech's Jerry S. Rawls College of Business to earn his MBA, and hopefully will apply to the corporation after 10 years of service with the company.
“I was going to take some time off after graduation because I've been going nonstop for a long time,” Jeramiah explained. “I feel if I take a break now, I will not want to keep going. The Rawls College offers an online MBA program that fits my needs best, and I just found out, only a month after December's graduation, that I've been accepted to start this coming fall.”
Because of the convenience and his success with the Waco site and the online programs, Jeramiah encourages others who want to complete (or start) their degrees without leaving their communities, to look into what Texas Tech has to offer. In fact, he has an important lesson he learned through his journey.
“This will not be the most pleasant journey, but to make your life complete and fulfilling, you must do the hard things and hard work you would not normally do. So, take the time, put in the effort, and make it happen,” Jeramiah said. “I am 38 years old and should have completed this degree 18 years ago, but I am here now because of the people who supported me and the drive to make it happen. Take a breath, make it happen, and mold your reality.”
Provost is still amazed at his ability to pull it off, despite going through hell to get it done.
“Even after spending all of those hours working, he never sounded exhausted or as if his classes were a burden,” she said. “Instead, he sounded invigorated to learn more. That is why I know he will be successful no matter what he chooses to pursue. I am excited for him to apply all he learned, and I hope that his company realizes how fortunate they are to have such a dedicated and capable employee.”
And even at 38, aside from the many academic lessons he learned, Jeramiah discovered much about himself.
“When I lost both of my parents, I had to learn to live and breathe and survive on my own with no support. This regional site gave me the convenience of keeping up my career and finishing my degree,” Jeramiah said. “I miss my parents, but I know they are looking down and smiling, supporting me, and I am glad I had the opportunity to complete my degree.”