Phyllis Cornett has a soft spot in her heart for America’s veterans. She has volunteered and job-shadowed at the James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center. And after graduating from ETSU next May with a degree in social work, she plans to apply for the university’s Master of Social Work program in hopes of opening a shelter for homeless veterans. The shelter would will not only provide a roof over their heads, but also help them receive the mental health care and skills training they need to reintegrate into the community.
“I’ve always thought our veterans deserve our respect and care, because without them, we would not be able to attend school, or have the freedoms that we have,” she said. “They fought for our freedom.”
Caring for others is a big part of who Cornett is. In many ways, it’s why she is at ETSU today, as a first-generation, non-traditional student. She says she always wanted a college degree, but had “a lot of starts and stops along the way.” Some of those “stops” came while caring for her parents – first, her father passed away, and then her mother began to need more assistance.
Cornett began pursuing a degree in nursing at Northeast State Community College after working as a patient care technician in the adult cardiac intensive care unit of a local hospital. But when results from several career aptitude tests linked her strongly with the field of social work, she took an introductory course on the topic. Her involvement with the No Veteran Dies Alone program, which provides end-of-life companionship for veterans without a strong support system, cemented the knowledge that social work was the field for her.
With that knowledge in mind, Cornett transferred to ETSU and pushed toward her goal.
“When I got to ETSU in the fall of 2016, I felt overwhelmed, coming from a smaller campus where everyone knew everyone to a larger campus where I knew no one,” she said. “I’d been at Northeast State long enough to make relationships, and I knew where to go if I needed anything. Here, it was a little scary, because I didn’t know anyone, and I was an adult commuter, a non-traditional student in my late 40s, with a job, and caring for an aging parent. I thought, ‘How is this going to work for me?’”
After working with the Office of Financial Aid to make sure she had the monetary resources to attend, Cornett met with the staff of the Office of Adult, Commuter and Transfer Services (ACTS), who helped her with the transition and provided a place she could go if she had any questions. She also plugged into the support system offered by the Department of Social Work faculty.
“I set my sights on just being successful,” Cornett said, “and as a social work major, I found that the Social Work department is always willing to help with problems and concerns, talk with you about your progress, and tell you what you need to do if you’re feeling overwhelmed.”
Cornett also found a source of strength in her family. “My mom has been the biggest influence in my life as far as giving me the courage and support in order for me to be able to finish this,” she said. “And my brother has kind of been like a father figure to me – a source of stability and encouragement.”
Cornett said she read about studies that showed being involved on campus outside the classroom was instrumental in student success. At Northeast State, she shared her personal experiences and encouragement with younger students as a Tennessee Promise mentor, and followed that up at ETSU with participation in numerous campus activities.
Cornett serves as president of both Tau Sigma, an honor society for transfer students, and Phi Alpha Nu, the social work honor society. She is passionate about suicide prevention and has volunteered for Suicide Prevention Month (September) activities sponsored by the ETSU Counseling Center’s THRIVE program. She is a fan of the Buccaneer football and basketball teams, and, as a student worker with the Office of University Advancement, she has enjoyed helping with such events as Homecoming. A member of the Transfer Student Advisory Council, she also participated in a roundtable event for transfer students at Shelbridge, the home of ETSU President Brian Noland and First Lady Donna Noland.
Outside ETSU, she continues her volunteer service at the VA and is active with the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, from which she received a Community Service Award in 2011. She has been a committee chair for the ACS’s Relay for Life, taken part in the American Heart Association Heart Walk, and raised $3,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as a Hero of Hope.
On top of all that, Cornett is an avid runner who has completed a half-marathon and around 30 5K races, as well as numerous 8Ks and 10Ks, with her favorite scripture verse – “… and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us …” – in mind.
The dean’s list student and Re-entry Scholarship recipient says she has had “amazing experiences at ETSU.”
“Now it feels like I belong here at ETSU and am part of something bigger,” Cornett said. “ETSU has given me the confidence to know I can be successful and that I will be able to help my clients achieve their goals. I’d like to tell young students to get their degrees – to further their education and get their degrees as soon as possible. Anything is possible if you have faith in yourself and determination.”