In the Field: Jenn Phillips

“I’m not even so much a techie, I don’t have nerd appeal,” Jenn Phillips, Microcomputer/Hardware/Software Coordinator and Co-Interim Service Desk Manager for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, tells Kraig Ehm on In the Field.

July 6, 2018

Kraig Ehm and Jenn Philips

“I’m not even so much a techie, I don’t have nerd appeal,” Jenn Phillips, Microcomputer/Hardware/Software Coordinator and Co-Interim Service Desk Manager for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, tells Kraig Ehm on In the Field.

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In the Field with Jenn Phillips - Transcript

Kraig Ehm:                              Welcome to In the Field, a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. I'm your host, Kraig Ehm. It's interesting what you can learn from a simple conversation. One day, while walking in to work, I talked with someone who expressed her love for horses. We continued our discussion in the elevator, and I learned more about this courageous woman. In this episode of In the Field, I'm joined by Jen Philips, micro computer hardware/software coordinator, and co-interim service desk manager for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. Jen, thanks for being here.

Jenn Philips: Thanks for inviting me. I'm absolutely thrilled to be here. This is definitely my first time in a recording studio like this, so it should be interesting.

Ehm: Micro computer hardware/software coordinator. All this time I thought you were the control, alt, delete lady.

Philips: It's the longest title for the most easy thing to understand. I'm in IT, I work in the help desk. That's a much easier way to say what I do.

Ehm: Well I'm a Mac guy, so we can't even control, alt, delete. We just unplug.

Philips: It's true, and that's why we love you.

Ehm: Before we talk about your current responsibilities, let's go back in time and talk about little Jen, or younger Jen. You grew up around horses?

Philips: I did. My mom jokes that she had to go through a second husband to get her horses, but she was the kid that grew up walking on her hands and knees and wearing rubber toed shoes because she wanted horses so badly. Then she got divorced, got remarried, got horses when I was five. I was riding from the time that my legs were about seven inches long till now.

Ehm: You were also involved with FFA as a kid.

Philips: Yes. I was the first class of the junior high FFA. That started in, I believe I was 12. Is that right? Yeah, I think I was 12. That started in 1992, for Laingsburg. That was their first junior high team that they had. It was seventh grade, eight grade, and then into high school. We were the first kids that did six years of FFA.

Ehm: Okay, so Laingsburg, equestrian team member from 1994 to 1998.

Philips: Correct.

Ehm: Was there any success involved?

Philips: There was actually. We went to the state's finals for class D schools three out of the four years I was there. I believe it was the first three years I was on, so '94, '95, '96.

Ehm: Now we were talking in the elevator, and this is how this whole interview came about. We were talking, and you mentioned that you owned horses, and I said, "Oh, no way." You said, "Yeah way." Then you also mentioned some things that I think are important for people to hear and to know. 

Philips: I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when I was 14, but I started experiencing issues when I was 13. I'll get to what CF is in a minute. Basically I was having troubles with keeping my breath, keeping my energy up. I was a runner throughout my middle school years, and I just didn't have any energy anymore. My mom took me to the doctor. The doctor said, "Oh, it's just growing pains. She's growing. It's not a big deal." Granted, I was four foot eight and 88 pounds my freshman year in high school, so I wasn't really growing at all. They just brushed it off, said there was nothing wrong with me. Went to the doctor approximately six months later, still complaining of the same things, fatigue. My stomach hurt all the time. I wasn't keeping food down. Lots of issues going on. That was when they realized that I had cirrhosis of the liver at 14 years old. They didn't know why I had cirrhosis. They said, "If you'd been drinking, we'd just tell you to stop drinking." At 13, 14 years old, I'm not drinking. They put me on the emergency transplant list and said they had to figure out what was going on. From there, we had some more blood tests. They sent me to University of Michigan Hospital, and immediately walked into the clinic and they were like, "You have cystic fibrosis. There's no question." Like I said, I was four foot eight, 88 pounds. I ate like a horse. I had two older brothers, plus an older stepbrother, and I ate more than they did. Growing teenage boys, a tiny little girl eating more than they did and not gaining any weight, was kind of a sign that there was something wrong. Not gaining any weight, there was lung issues that we didn't realize were that bad. I ran, I sang, I played in a band for a very little bit of time. There was never any issues with my breathing until it got later on. That's when they discovered that I had cystic fibrosis. CF is a lung disease, which basically the mucous in your body is too thick, and you can't get rid of it. Normal people cough, the things that they cough come out. Cystic fibrosis related people, the mucous gets stuck in our lungs, and we have to have treatments that actually break it up and remove it for us. The other flip side of the coin is that we often have issues digesting our food, which is why I was so little for so long. They give me pills that make my food break down. It's got animal enzymes in it, so it does it for me. Then I started gaining weight and I grew about eight inches over six months or so. It was amazing the difference that it really made so quickly.

Ehm: Then in 1995, at the age of 15, you were diagnosed with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, or alpha-1. It's hereditary, passed from parents to children through the genes, and it may result in a serious lung disease and/or liver disease. What did alpha-1 mean to you?

Philips: Really when I was diagnosed, I had no idea what it meant. Even to this day, I'm still not incredibly sure how much of it is CF and how much of it is the alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. However, now that I've had a liver transplant, we know, after the doctors looked at it, they said, "It's an alpha-1 liver." They knew exactly what it was. Basically the alpha-1 causes liver issues, and I can't honestly tell you how. The lung issues are developed because there's a sticky mucous in your lungs that I am missing. If I were to have a collapsed lung, not only with the CF, but also with the antitrypsin deficiency, I probably wouldn't make it. It's just the fact that my lung would probably never reinflate.

Ehm: Through all of this you participated in the National FFA Ag Sales Competition, receiving a national silver as a team, and individual national silver for telephone skills. I'm sure your folks were probably wondering why you were on the phone so much, and it was, hello, I'm practicing. Talk a little bit about the national FFA. The national FFA is basically a leadership organization. They dropped the Future Farmers of America, I want to say it was 1989, but don't quote me on that. It's just a place where you learn how to become a leader in a lot of ways. I participated in the Greenhand Connective Meetings, where I learned parliamentary procedure, how to run a meeting, that sort of thing. I did a demo project one year, which ended up being terrible, but I tried it and I was learning about groundwater, and it was kind of interesting. It wasn't very good, but I learned, so that's good. Then the National Ag Skills competition is basically you determine whatever product it is that you want to learn to sell. My first year we did Plevaline, which was a meat product with cherries in it. Not a lot of people know what it is. The year we went to nationals with it we used caramel apples, we sold caramel apples. There's four parts to the sales competition. There's a group piece where you actually go in and do a sale to a random stranger. They do a marketing piece. They do a display piece where it's like, how would you set up a display in a Meijer, or whatever place you wanted to sell the product? Then my piece was doing skills, phone skills. Basically I made a fake phone call to a fake person and sold them my product, and answered questions about my product. You can see how my phone skill is related to what I do now, because I was on the phone for that. At my job now, I'm on the phone 80% of my day, trying to help people walk through things, how to do that kind of stuff. It really did work in my favor to do something that really is what I'm doing now.

Ehm: You graduated high school. You started at Central Michigan, transferred to Michigan State, but then you had to leave due to illness.

Philips: Yup. It just got too much. I was in a sorority, in Sigma Alpha actually. It was the ag sorority for the Michigan State University. It just got a little overwhelming. I couldn't keep up with everything. I was having bouts where I was staying in the hospital longer than I had planned. A lot of liver related mostly. Not much lung related. I had bronchitis and things like that, but not abnormal for anybody anyway. Just took a little too much out of me. I could have gone back, it just wasn't something that I ever needed to do at the time, so I haven't. I spent three years at Michigan State. It was a good time. I learned a lot. I had amazing professors, and people that I serve now. Kirk Heinze was one of my professors. There's all these people that now I see as an employee and a staff person, and I'm supporting those people that really raised me. It's really kind of interesting and it's definitely a coming home.

Ehm: In 1999, you received the American FFA Degree, what is that?

Philips: In FFA, you have an SAE, which is a Supervised Agricultural Experience. You're expected to put in a bunch of time towards this experience, whatever you choose to do. I raised chickens for a few years. I had sheep for multiple years. I showed the sheep and I raised them for meat, so they were sold at the end of the year. Then I also worked at Quality Farm and Fleet from, geez, I want to say my sophomore year through my first year out of high school, I believe. All of that time counts toward your SAE. I don't know the percentage, so I can't tell you, but it's a small percentage of people that actually reach their American FFA Degree. You get your chapter degree. You get your regional degree. You get a state degree. Then you go on to get your national degree. I want to say it's only the top 1% that actually earn their degree that way. There were five of us from my school that got it the same year, so that was pretty impressive.

Ehm: In 2005 began your interest in all things gigabyte with your work at Edgewood Village Apartments, where you created and oversaw the after school program, and taught approximately 150 students computer learning courses. That would be a nerd alert, wouldn't it?

Philips: I just, when I was in college I worked for a graphic design firm, and kind of realized that I wasn't bad at using computers. They made sense to me. They're very logical, and very calculated. I realized that I'm pretty good at this, and then I got to the point where I needed to get a job that wasn't working at a jewelry counter at the mall anymore. My husband worked for a property management company and told me that, "Hey, there's this place. They're hiring a person to teach basic computer courses." By basic, I mean how to turn it on, how to use the mouse. Those very easy things. I had one woman who called the mouse the moose, and it was the best thing ever. Like that's the kind of person that I helped. These were all low income properties, low income students that I taught. Basically the goal was to make these people have a usable skill to take to the workforce, and hopefully get out of whatever situation they were in, to better themselves. A lot of these people had kids that they couldn't even help because they didn't know how to use a computer. Every school program now uses computers. These were Head Start people, parents, grandparents, that sort of thing. At the end of the course, they got a free desktop computer. They got six months of free internet access from ACD.net. It was a great thing for them. I think the courses were 10 bucks per course, and it was four courses total.

Ehm: That's just incredible. Being able to help people in a field where they're really going to need it later on.

Philips: Absolutely. It was very nice. I felt good about myself, and I really did get a lot of people that came back that were like, "You've actually really made a difference. I'm helping my kid." Or, "I just did a resume." We also had extended learning courses that they could come back and take to improve their skills. We did have a resume writing course at one point. We did typing skills. There are a lot of different things that we did to really try to help, and it was just an amazing thing that the owner of Edgewood Village developed this. He said, "I want to do this." That's what we did. His name was John [Dooley 00:13:00]. He was very involved in the community, is very involved in the community. He's recently stepped down from his work at Edgewood Village. He's an amazing man.

Ehm: It was also about this time you started suffering even more setbacks.

Philips:  Actually during one of the courses I had to leave. I was having what's called esophageal varices. Basically the blood couldn't get through my liver the proper way, so it tried to find a new channel back to my heart. It went through my veins in my throat, and it was too much blood pressure, and actually my veins in my throat burst. I was teaching a class and had to go to the hospital. I left. My boss was there and she's like, "Do I need to get you an ambulance?" I said, "No, I'll be fine." I went to the hospital, and by the time everything was said and done, they were surprised I had been able to drive myself, and that I wasn't asleep at that point. I was in a very bad position, and we had no idea that that had been something that we should have been expecting. My doctor had not told me that this is a thing that might happen, and it happened multiple times over a course of a couple of years. Every time they'd go in, and it's called banding, they basically put a rubber band and stop the bleeding. I had to have multiple blood transfusions and things like that.
It was not a good time for me. I had to have somebody take over my teaching, because I couldn't do it all the time. This was really the beginning of the decline for me. That was also the reason I decided to change jobs, is because I was around mainly seniors and children, who unfortunately are big germ carriers. I don't mean that in a terrible way, but really they're known for being the germ carriers of the group. I had to leave because it just wasn't a good position for me to be in, in my compromised state.

Ehm: Which let to you working at Property Management as an IT person, and once again, other health challenges.

Philips: Yes. It really became the beginning of the end. I started my new job in February, and by June I had taken my leave of absence because I could no longer work. I had issues with having too much ammonia in my brain, and I couldn't complete day to day tasks. I had to have a babysitter with me at all times. I would forget to feed my dogs. It just was something that my brain couldn't remember what I was doing. It's very similar to being senile, something along those lines. I was good one minute, and the next I wasn't. Like I said, I left work in June because I just couldn't keep my stuff together anymore. I was put on the liver transplant list on June 19th, which happened to be my wedding anniversary. By July 29th I had received my liver. There was a two week period in between where I had developed an issue, my kidneys were starting to shut down due to a medication. Every problem that you have along the way, they have to take you off the transplant list. If you get an infection, if you get sick, if something else happens, they actually put you on hold, and then reapply you once you have actually gotten over the issues. I was on an IV medication, it was causing my kidneys to shut down. I was on hold for two weeks. When I came back and I was listed healthy enough, I was out of the hospital for a day and a half, and they called and said, "You need to come." I was in the hospital by midnight, and had my transplant around 10:00 AM. I was in the hospital for 10 days, which was super quick. They were really excited about the recovery I had made.

Ehm: Wow. Through all of this I would say you're a fighter.

Philips: I try to be. There's days that I wouldn't mind just going to sleep. I talk to my husband that I'd like to not be me for a day. I'd like to not take 14 medications, and breathing treatments. I'd really like to just be a normal healthy person that doesn't have to deal with this, but I am who I am. It's definitely made me a different person than I probably would have been had none of this happened.

Ehm: Okay, let's get on to some better news, some good news. That is in 2011, it behooved you to purchase a horse.

Philips: That's such a bad joke.

Ehm: I know, it's such a bad joke, but what's even worse is you later found out this horse had its own issues.

Philips: Yes. We bought her at a super cheap price from this person that we now know is kind of a horse dealer. She had told us this story about how my horse, her name is Isis, that she had been ridden by kids at 4H, blah, blah, blah. Super sweet mare. Very nice on the ground, meaning her ground manners, like when she's up to you, she's super adorable, very nice, not pushy. Doesn't bite. Doesn't kick. Just a very good horse. They said, "Oh yeah, she'd totally been ridden. Blah, blah, blah." I got on her and she didn't try to buck me off, by any means, but you could tell she was not happy. She bobs her head around, she's very uncomfortable. Not sweet anymore when you're on her back. I sent her to a trainer, thinking, okay, maybe I'm not the rider that she needs. We sent her to a trainer, and the trainer called me one day and said, "I want you to come visit us. I need to talk to you about your mare." I go up there, and he says, "I think that she has one of two issues. Her ovaries are too close to her back, and you're actually riding on her ovaries when you're sitting on her. Or she has some issues with her spine." She is the sweetest horse for giving pony rides. I have 20 nieces and nephews, and she has given pony rides to just about any of them. She's ridden triple kids. She has kids running around her screaming. We have two dogs that run around her barking. She's a doll, but at the moment that you get on, if anybody weighs more than about 110 pounds, she gets antsy, she tenses up, and she's just super uncomfortable. She has become the pasture buddy, and my other dog that lives out in the pasture instead of in my house, much to the dismay of my husband. I keep trying to get her in the house, but I don't think he's going to fall for that.

Ehm: Now in 2014 you started work here in the College of Ag and Natural Resources. I think of you as someone who helps me with more than just control, alt, delete, because you're always there at a moment's notice to help me with whatever computer challenge I have for the day that to you is probably nothing, but to me it's huge. What are your responsibilities?

Philips: In simple terms, I help you with whatever technology issues you're having. If I want to get existential maybe, I would say that I'm the person who can point you in any direction you need to go. We get a lot of telephone calls from people that we can't help. Maybe it's an MSU product and we don't have the ability. Maybe it's you've just simply called me because you don't know where else to turn. I'm really good at pointing people in the direction they need to go for whatever it is. Absolutely, any printer problems, networking issues, meaning your computer can't connect to whatever, the VPN, or the network, as in the internet. I will help you if your computer does a blue screen of death. We do all of that stuff that's related to technology. Even using the telepresence system, so video conferencing, things like that, we also help with.

Ehm: What are some contact numbers, or where can people get ahold of you?

Philips: You can get ahold of us at 517-355-3776, or you can email us at support@anr.msu.edu. Those are, again, for the College of Ag and Natural Resources at MSU. If you need to reach MSU, Ithelp@msu.edu, or their phone number is 517-432-6200.

Ehm:  Any funny stories that you can relate without using names?

Philips: There's always funny stories, but usually it's everybody hates us for asking people to reboot, but that's typically one of the things that works. It just happens to work. We had somebody call us, she's well known for not wanting to reboot, and she said her computer keyboard was lagging. We said, "Really? When was the last time you rebooted?" She said, "But I don't want to!" She did anyway, and she called back, and she's like, "Yeah, it works. Thanks." There's always good things, but I won't go into too much detail, because if I talk about the really good ones, then they'll know that I'm talking about them.

Ehm: Okay. I understand. Now since you've been working here, you were also able to purchase your second horse, Raven.

Philips: Yes. He's a 15.3 hand tall black Tennessee Walker. He's the first Tennessee I've had. If you know much about horses, quarter horses, thoroughbreds, they have a certain gait. There are four gaits, walk, trot, canter and gallop. Tennessee Walkers have multiple gaits. They're well known for being very smooth rides. There's also other horses that are gaited as well, and that's what Raven, Tennessee Walkers are, they're called gaited horses. I figured, hey, let's make this easy on me and get a horse that isn't going to kill my back, or whatever the case may be. Yeah, he's super smooth. He's amazing. He's my big, tall, dark and handsome boy. He's a little skittish, but I still love him and I wouldn't trade him for the world. He and my mare are a great group together. They're best buds, and they love each other, and I'm happy as a clam. I've got my two horses, my two dogs. I just got a guinea pig for Christmas, because I'm the only 35 year old woman who would ask for a guinea pig for Christmas. Then I have a kitty that I just adopted as well. I have so many fur children, and we're very happy with that.

Ehm: Guinea pig's name?

Philips: His name is Gunther, but I often forget that I named him Gunther, because I just refer to him as Mr. Pig, from The Lion King.

Ehm: What puts a smile on your face every day when you come to work?

Philips:  I'm smiling a lot. I really do enjoy helping people. I'm not even so much a techie. Like I don't have nerd appeal. I'm not that kind of person. I don't play video games. I don't even use a computer at home. My husband does. I don't play flash games on Facebook. I'm just not that person. The computer piece was logical and it made sense to me, but it's really helping the people and talking to the people. I'm super introverted in my every day life, but as far as professionally, I'm definitely out there and I just like people. I like talking to people, and I like the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. I will say that I super enjoy when you call me about a problem that I have no idea how to fix, and I figure out how to fix it. I like Sherlock Holmes-ing, if you will, what is the problem? How do I fix it?

Ehm: How have you pushed ahead through all the challenges you've faced and continue to face?

Philips: Really it's just a choice. It's truly a choice. If I had given up, if I had said, "I don't want to do this anymore." I could probably be on disability. Liver transplant is something that you can easily get disability for. Many people with liver transplants never go back to work because you have issues with fatigue. You have to make the choice every day, do I want to be that person that complains all the time? Do I want to be the person that nobody wants to be around because all I do is whine and complain? I have my family. I mean, I have a big family. I have 20 nieces and nephews. I married a man that has three other brothers, and I am one of five children. My family all lives pretty close. We've got three siblings that are a little bit further away, but everyone else is about 15 minutes away from each other. I have an amazing support system. If I need something, family is there for me. I have really good, close friends. I don't have many friends, but I have super good, close friends. You keep putting a smile on your face and going forward because the alternate is not good, and it puts you alone. That's not what anybody wants.

Ehm: What encouragement can you give to others who find themselves sitting in your stirrups?

Philips: Again, make the conscious decision to be happy. Make the decision to go forward. Know that if you don't, there are other people more than just you affected by this. It really is a family decision to keep going. If I didn't have my family pushing me to keep trying, and to keep getting better, and to make those decisions that were good for me, I probably would have given up a long time ago. You need that support system. U of M recognizes the support system so much that they won't actually do a transplant without training your support system before you go through it. I actually had five people at this training session about what's going to happen to me when I get a transplant. They recognize that your support system and your family is really the reason that you're going to make it through.

Ehm: I would like to thank Jen Philips, micro computer hardware/software coordinator, and co interim service desk manager, for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University for joining me today. Be sure and listen next time for another episode of In the Field.

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