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Learning Beyond the Classroom

Debbie Phillips reflects on workplace safety, teaching in the occupational safety and health master's program, and blending work and life
Professor in Georgia Tech’s master's in occupational safety and health reflects on workplace safety, real-world teaching, and more.

“Hi, it’s a fantastic Friday! This is Debbie!” It’s not your typical phone greeting, and when someone answers a call with that sort of enthusiasm, you know you’re talking to an exceptionally positive person.

Debbie Phillips, or “Dr. Debbie” as her students fondly call her, is that person, and she brings the same energy to her classes at Georgia Tech, where she teaches in the Professional Master’s in Occupational Safety and Health program.

“When I describe Dr. Debbie to someone, the one word that comes to mind is ‘enthusiasm,’” said former student Jessica Ross, environmental health and safety manager at Shaw Industries. “She brings such an abundance of positive energy to everything she does that you can’t help but be affected by it and feel it, too. She is a great role model because she gives 100 percent to everything she does.”

And that includes the action-packed agenda and real-life curriculum of her course. The seven-week class, Culture Leadership Influences on Safety and Health, consists of six online weeks and one week at Tech’s campus in Atlanta.

During the in-person segment, her most recent cohort didn’t spend much time listening to lectures. “We went to Delta. We went to Kia Motor Company. We heard from construction companies, from the superintendent on site all the way to president,” said Phillips. “I think the students were really blown away that we could fit all this in a week.”

The Delta excursion “was one of my greatest pride points in the whole class,” she said. “I thought, with our students coming from all over, what better place to take them than Delta? It’s a phenomenal company with a phenomenal culture. I wanted to take them to the best of the best.”

The cohort consisted of professionals from a myriad of industries: manufacturing, transportation, construction, healthcare. “Today, whether you’re in the private sector, nonprofit, or education, safety is a huge component.” And while the technical side of workplace safety may be site-specific, Phillips stressed that it’s an overarching workplace policy that produces an outstanding safety record. "Safety should be at the forefront of everybody's mind for every job position."

Phillips teaches a variety of classes and finds a marked difference between younger students and adult learners. “Undergraduate students are in discovery mode. They’re exploring options and still trying to figure it out. They are taking classes because they’re part of the curriculum.”

“But adult learners coming back to school to obtain an advanced degree or to complete a certificate program are more focused on something specific. They have narrowed down their field of interest and are generally more goal-oriented. They are like, ‘Hey, I know I need to advance my career. I want to get ahead. I want to take this professional master’s program to learn and to grow and to stay ahead of the competition.”

As a professor, Phillips draws on her more than 30 years of experience in the real estate profession. She started out in the apartment industry after graduating from the University of Georgia and followed that up with senior leadership positions at two real estate companies and a master’s in Housing and Consumer Economics. In 1997, she started her own business, The Quadrillion, a consulting practice that focuses on leadership development programs, employee engagement, and talent management strategies. She added teaching to the mix in 2004, and then earned her Ph.D. from Georgia Tech.

“Teaching is a phenomenal opportunity for me,” she said, “because I’m a resource for my clients who are looking to hire people and for my students who are looking for employment. I’m a natural bridge.” How many matches has she made? “Oh gosh, too many to count! Over the course of teaching in the last 10 years, 250 to 300 matches, easily.”

Even when matching talent is not a factor, the real-world connection is invaluable. “My clients are always saying, ‘Get your students to solve this problem for me.’ And my students love the experience that comes with such an opportunity!”

Reflecting on Women’s History Month, Phillips feels that “we’ve got to do a better job of encouraging women” in order for them to “overcome doubt and fear.” One obstacle, she said, is still-existent stereotypes. “We pay the boys to mow the grass, but when the girls do something great, we buy them a dress.”

Then there’s the dearth of role models in STEM careers, something that underscores the need for more mentorship. She has little patience for those who cite lack of time for not doing it. “It’s not that complicated. It’s taking someone you believe in and inviting them to be part of your life.”

“People talk about work-life balance. I believe in work-life blend. My life is my work and the people I serve. I enjoy taking my students out for meals to discuss their resumes, careers, interviews, girlfriends, boyfriends and others in their circle of influence. My rule of thumb is that I always pay the tab, and when they get their job or accomplish their goal, they take me out.”

Recently, Phillips underwent cancer-related surgery and, on the same day, her husband suffered a heart attack. Former students rallied round her. “Since I’ve been battling my cancer and my husband’s recovery, they have sent meals, cards, texts, and visited like you wouldn’t believe. It just proves the ‘boomerang’ theory: what you put out, comes back! I really am the luckiest professor on the planet.”

Current health challenges haven’t dampened Phillip’s exuberance. On Day 4 of radiation treatment, she spoke to a gymnasium full of seventh graders for the Career Technical & Agricultural Education Program. And her passion for educating and helping her adult students remains as strong as ever. With trademark enthusiasm, she proclaimed, “I absolutely love teaching in this master's program! The students and my fellow colleagues set the standard for excellence. It's a triple-win!”

Written by Laurel-Ann Dooley