This is part of an on-going series.
Dr. Gita Phelps is a trailblazer. But the tracks of that trail are swept away by her quiet modesty.
Phelps prefers to be anonymous and focus on others.
She’s quick to praise her oldest sister, who broke barriers as the first black valedictorian at their Peach County High School in Fort Valley. But when it comes to her own accolades—being the first female and first African-American to get a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Georgia (UGA)—she simply says, “That’s just normal. That’s in my family that we do our best.”
By doing her best, Phelps opened a path for others.
“I could tell by looking around, it was mostly other cultures like Indian, Chinese and mostly male,” Phelps said. “I knew no females or blacks had graduated before me, but it wasn’t an issue. I didn’t feel like the first. I didn’t think I was breaking a barrier. It was all fun to me.”
“I’m a computer nerd,” she said. “I wasn’t there to set records. I just enjoy learning and working with computers.”
Now, Phelps shares her optimism and, when needed, tough love with students.
If they don’t come to class, she emails and calls to make sure they’re OK. When one student was unreachable, she sent Public Safety to the dorm to make sure he wasn’t hurt. Phelps told another student he would fail, if he didn’t get his life in order, no excuses. When that student graduated in May, he wrote Phelps to thank her, saying she was the reason he graduated.
Phelp’s firm approach is reinforced with plenty of support. She told one lazy student he might as well go home, because she doesn’t accept poor work. But, if he applied himself, Phelps promised to work with him. Her high expectations helped him learn time management and how to organize class assignments.
Phelps has a pile of student letters, all expressing gratitude. Some changed majors and pursued computer science, because of her. One transfer student said she came to Georgia College, motivated by Phelp’s success.
Phelps is touched by the sentiment. But she’ll also tell you she’s perplexed by it.
“Students tell me I inspire them, but I was just being me,” Phelps said. “I don’t have an official program that says ‘follow me.’ I just treat all students the same. It’s always a joy, when they write and say they couldn’t have done it without me.”
In high school, Phelps participated in dual-enrollment programs at Middle State College and Fort Valley State University. Her best friend’s sister graduated from Georgia College, so Phelps always knew this was the place to be.
While here, Phelps was named outstanding computer science major. She developed relationships with her professors and kept in contact with them after graduation. They encouraged her to get her master’s, apply for a teaching position and get her Ph.D.
In the end, her mentors became co-workers.
“The people here at Georgia College always made me feel special, like I could do anything,” Phelps said. “My faculty were always loving, supportive and kind. This is like coming home to me. I feel blessed every day to come to work.”
Credit for her optimism goes to her parents, who taught Phelps and her siblings to show “love and respect.” Phelps father served in the U.S. Army, and her mother taught for more than 30 years. Their household was a place of affirmation. Today, Phelps mom still writes her little notes of encouragement and support. Just recently, she wrote: “You’re the kind of daughter every mother wants.”
“This is what makes me who I am,” Phelps said, “having a family and a mother like that. We are a very positive-thinking family. A bad thing can’t affect you, unless you let it.”
Phelps became a foster parent 20 years ago, nurturing youngsters from broken homes, and she mentors high school youth to pursue college. Her Christian faith is about helping others, and she does this with a big dose of hope.
At Georgia College 25 years, Phelps teaches introductory courses for computer programming. Many students drop the major, when they realize it isn’t about video games, she said. But the rest come to see the field as she does—a constantly-changing arena where anything can be created, and there’s always a new challenge.
Her software engineering class creates apps for non-profits. Students work for actual clients with tangible requirements. They write language code, construct software and web-based programs or design apps for cell phones. They meet with clients, determine need and come up with real-world products.
Sometimes, several teams compete to win one client. Or several groups come up with products for several clients. Students did a scheduling project for Georgia College’s Learning Center, simulation for the nursing department, archive for the Student Government Association and website for Best Buddies. They also did an online database for the Georgia Youth Challenge Academy in Milledgeville and information-based software for Rock Hawk Effigy & Trail in Eatonton.
It’s a lot of work, and Phelps is demanding. But, before long, students become engrossed in their products. They like showing off their tech skills.
“They enjoy the real-world application,” Phelps said, “and I’m always surprised by their creativity. They’re like me. They’re excited to see how the programs they create impact others."