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Discovering a Passion for Nonprofits: Meet Ryan Phillips, LPS ‘24

Two people standing in an atrium. The man is in graduation reglaia.
Ryan Phillips and his wife Katherine celebrate commencement May 4, 2024.

When Ryan Phillips decided to pursue his bachelor’s degree, he knew he would need a flexible program designed to meet his needs. A non-traditional student returning to college after serving in the U.S. Navy, Phillips is a Lieutenant for the Hillsborough/Orange Rural Fire Department in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

While he had full support from his supervisors for his educational pursuits, being on-call during his 24-hour shifts made a traditional on-campus degree program nearly impossible. 

What he needed, Phillips determined, was an online degree program — one that would account for his military service, develop his leadership potential and open new opportunities for a career in public service. 

And coming from a Carolina “house divided” — his dad, brother and uncle are NC State alumni and diehard Wolfpack fans, while his mom and sister sport Carolina blue — Phillips wanted to keep it local. A lifelong NC State football fan, Phillips was leaning toward red and white. 

Then he discovered NC State’s Leadership in the Public Sector (LPS) program — the university’s only fully online undergraduate degree geared toward working professionals. 

The LPS program was a perfect fit. 

Phillips graduated earlier this month with his NC State Bachelor of Arts in LPS knowing he made the right decision: “I’ve been privileged to engage with a diverse group of peers and instructors who are dedicated to making a meaningful impact in public service leadership training,” he said.

“And now I’m officially part of the Pack!”

Centering Nontraditional Students

Housed in the College of Humanities and Social SciencesSchool of Public and International Affairs, the LPS program adheres to the same admissions standards and academic rigor as every other NC State undergraduate program. 

Designed for students who have already completed some college coursework, LPS attracts non-traditional learners including veterans and active-duty military personnel, first-generation college students, students who are parents and students who work full-time. 

Phillips fit right in with this cohort. 

As a younger man wanting to attend nursing school at UNC Wilmington — there are several healthcare providers in his family — he took prerequisite courses at Cape Fear Community College. 

But the UNC-W program proved too competitive, and, after a long discussion with a family friend — a career Navy man — Phillips “took the plunge” and enlisted in the Navy. Far from abandoning his plans for college, he was taking the longer view by gaining some life and career experience. 

“I loved hearing the stories from my dad’s buddy about the places he visited,” he explained. “The Navy was a smart option for me to gain exposure to different career paths.”

Stationed on the USS Truman and later the USS George Washington (both Nimitz-class aircraft carriers), Phillips started collecting his own travel stories — such as his time in Puerto Rico in 2017 assisting with relief efforts after Hurricane Maria. 

The Navy also prepared Phillips for his work as a firefighter when he left the service. “They teach you that every sailor is a firefighter,” he said, “trained in firefighting proficiency, damage control and structural maintenance.”

Transitioning from the Navy to his role with the Hillsborough FD was easy, and transitioning to being a working full-time undergraduate in the LPS program was pretty seamless as well. 

A man in graduation regalia.
The future is bright for Phillips, here celebrating commencement outside Carter-Finley Stadium May 4, 2024.

Acknowledging that public leadership roles — and the people who fill them — differ from those in the private sector, the LPS curriculum emphasizes the ethical, theoretical and analytical skills students will need to be effective public sector leaders in an ever-changing world.

“The LPS curriculum is thorough and practical, equipping me with the essential knowledge and skills I’ll need to thrive in my career,” Phillips said, “and to effectively address emerging challenges to better serve our communities.”

To provide students with the best online learning experience possible, the LPS program is Quality Matters certified, meaning that it meets national standards for online learning excellence following a rigorous external program review. 

LPS’s excellence has not gone unnoticed: it is No. 4 in the nation in the 2024 U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Programs rankings. The ranking is based on a combination of factors including student engagement opportunities, faculty credentials and training and educational technology integration — all of which the LPS program has in abundance.

Shaping the Academic Journey

After more than a dozen years as the academic advisor for LPS, LaShica Waters has a pretty good idea of how to help students thrive in the program. She works one-on-one with students from pre-admission through graduation and beyond, playing an integral role in their personal and professional development and creating opportunities for alumni to stay engaged. 

Ryan Phillips, far right, with his cohort of LPS ’24 graduates at the departmental commencement ceremony. Program advisor LaShica Waters is in the front row, second from the left.

Waters serves as a mentor, ally and friend to students in the LPS program. 

“Dr. Waters demonstrated an exceptional commitment to my success and academic growth, taking a genuine interest in my academic goals,” Phillips explained. “Her guidance and support were instrumental in shaping my academic journey and career aspirations.” 

As a first-generation and non-traditional college graduate herself, Waters can relate to the challenges that the program’s students face: “I tell my students everything I wish somebody would have told me when I was first going to college,” she said. 

And she understands the struggle of managing work, personal life and pursuing a degree: Waters earned her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy from the NC State College of Education in 2020 while working full-time in the LPS program. 

“What stands out about Dr. Waters is her unwavering dedication to improving the program and students’ individual experiences in it,” said Phillips. “Her efforts to actively engage LPS students in academic and in-person activities had a profoundly positive impact on my overall experience in the program.” 

The respect is mutual: “Ryan is a great student,” Waters said, “with an impressive background in firefighting and naval service. I’m excited to see him further his career in public service after graduation.”

A Host of Career Options

In addition to their core courses, students in the LPS program complete requirements by diving into various related topics, such as grant writing, fundraising, organizational psychology and human values. Electives can be selected from across the university, allowing for a personalized course of study anchored in the liberal arts.

Many of his courses, Phillips found, were directly applicable to his aspirations: “I learned about effective leadership strategies and theories, understanding public policy and governance and fostering diversity while developing my own critical thinking skills,” he said. 

In fact, his courses and instructors “ignited a passion for nonprofit work and opened my eyes to a whole host of career options,” when he realized nonprofit work could be a viable career path. Phillips hopes to put his passion for wildlife conservation or supporting veterans to use in this capacity. 

Like many of his LPS peers, Phillips was balancing his classes, work and family responsibilities throughout his program. His wife, Katherine, is a nurse practitioner who also works a non-standard schedule. They have a golden retriever, Lincoln, who loves long walks, and they are both close with their families. 

Phillips, second from left, traveled to Phoenix with Katherine, his dad and his brother to represent the Wolfpack during the NCAA Final Four tournament in March 2024.

They also enjoy cheering on NC State sports teams, holding season tickets to Wolfpack football. In March, they traveled to Phoenix to cheer on the Wolfpack men and women at the Final Four basketball tournament: “It was a blast,” Phillips said. 

He praises the flexibility of the LPS program for his success in finding the right balance of work, school and life. 

“It required a bit of good old-fashioned time management and dedication,” he said. “My advice for fellow working professionals is straightforward: prioritize effective time management and planning, and stay focused on your end goal.”

Without the support of his family, he says, he could not have done it at all: “Pursuing a degree at this stage of my professional career was not a solo journey,” he said. “The unwavering encouragement from family and friends was essential.”

Phillips is looking forward to a celebratory trip later this summer to Hawaii, from which Katherine’s family hails, and to at least a couple of luaus while there. 

He will continue working for the Hillsborough FD while he explores nonprofit opportunities in and around his home in Mebane this summer. 

“I am excited about the opportunities ahead and confident that the skills and knowledge I’ve gained will have a lasting impact on my career,” he said.

“My experience in the LPS program has been incredibly fulfilling.”