First Generation Week: The many lives of Tech tutor Phil Redden
Phil’s story is part of a weeklong series celebrating first-generation Golden Bears. They’re the first in their families to earn a four-year degree, and they’re the students, alumni, faculty and staff who are showing the world how one big first step can change everything.
Anyone who’s been tutored through WVU Tech’s TRIO Student Support Services program in the last two decades knows Phil Redden. He’s the go-to math guy and he’s built a great career at Tech.
What most folks don’t know is that this great career is actually his second and that he has a history with TRIO programs that extends well beyond his work at Tech.
Phil was born and raised in Meadow Bridge, West Virginia. It’s a small town in Fayette County known for its beautiful hills and heavy winter snows. It’s also in the Greenbrier Coalfield, and so Phil grew up with his mother at home and his father in the mines.
In high school, Phil wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Kids his age were going right into the workforce. Others were going into military service. What he did know was that he was a whiz at math and that there was a new kind of program at Tech (it was called West Virginia Institute of Technology then) that helped students explore college. It was 1966, and that program was the very first class of TRIO Upward Bound at Tech.
The next year, he decided to attend college. He decided on Tech.
“Many of the students at my high school went to jobs in the mines. Those that went to college remained fairly close to home and either went to Tech or Concord. To remain close to home was also my reason for choosing Tech. And having attended Upward Bound, I was somewhat familiar with the campus,” he said.
Back then, Phil says he was a “rock-solid D student.” In the height of American involvement in the Vietnam War, that didn’t bode well for staying in school.
“Because of my poor showing in my playful first year of college, I received my Vietnam-era draft notice, so I joined the Air Force,” he said.
Even in the service, Phil couldn’t escape his penchant for figuring things out.
“In the middle of basic training some people came down from Monterey, California and gave a group of us a class in Chinese. We were told that if we passed the test afterwards we would be going to Monterey to study Chinese,” he said.
He passed, and it was off to Monterey. Phil went on to study both Chinese and Korean languages in the Air Force. In 1989, after more than 20 years of service, he hung up the uniform.
“After retiring from the Air Force, I was still too young to stay at home and just do nothing,” he said.
He thought he’d take another crack at college, so the coal miner’s kid from Meadow Bridge – the one who attended the first Upward Bound class on campus nearly 25 years before – returned to Tech. This time he was ready for it.
“My field of study was math education. I worked some as a trainer and evaluator in the Air Force with some success, hence the decision towards the education field. And everyone should consider math fascinating, since it applies to all fields of business and science,” he said.
Phil started working with the University’s TRIO Student Support Services program while he was earning his degree. The federal program offers a wide range of services, like free tutoring, to WVU Tech students who qualify as first-generation, low-income or disabled.
He graduated in 1993 and was hired that next year as a full-time tutor in the SSS office. He said that being part of a program that helps these students is rewarding.
“Anything you can do to help a student move from one level to the next is important,” he said. “I love to see the light bulb come on. You may work days on a concept and then finally see the idea gel. When that happens and the student succeeds in his or her classes, you feel that you have done something worthwhile.”
“Most students are more intelligent than I,” he joked, “but I am still able to help by boosting their confidence. When I am able to help students see that they are on the right track and need to believe in what they think and what they are doing, it is just as rewarding as leading them through that thought process.”
He keeps up with those he’s helped, too. Many of the students he has worked with through the program have gone on to build successful careers, while others have completed advanced degrees.
“One student I worked with finished his degree at Tech with a 4.00 GPA and went on to finish a Ph.D. in math within two or three years. It is great to make friends and work with students like that,” he said.
It’s now been more than 20 years since Phil started his “retirement job” at Tech, and he’s worked with hundreds of first-generation students in that time.
In his experience, he found that these students aren’t any different than anyone else. They’re driven by the same goals and dreams. They’re still capable of success in the classroom and in their careers. Sometimes, they just need someone to point the way.
“First-gen students do not have the ‘networking’ that other students have. They are making their first connections in college and need referrals to appropriate offices and introductions to potential friends who can help guide them,” he said.
“The only thing that sets them apart is that they lack the experienced support from parents. But in Student Support Services, they get that experience and support from the staff,” he said.
When Phil looks back at his career – both of them – he counts himself fortunate for the experience he’s gained. And so does every first-generation student who’s had the pleasure of working alongside him.