Criminal justice outstanding graduate motivated by difficult life experiences
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates.
Arizona State University graduate Philip Wellwerts beat the odds and then some. His father was incarcerated just a few months before he was born. He continues to serve out a lengthy prison sentence. Growing up, Wellwerts watched his birth mother battle her inner demons with drug addiction. He felt he had no choice but to cut all ties with her due to her continued substance abuse.
“Overall, the crime, drug usage, and violence I witnessed growing up were the motivating factors that allowed me to overcome my childhood challenges,” Wellwerts said.
As a kid, he heard his great grandfather talk about joining the military during World War II only to be discharged because he had lied about his age. He was too young. His great grandfather eventually joined the Marine Corps following the war.
So, Wellwerts set his sights on military service out of high school. Like his great grandfather, he became a Marine.
“Statistically, the odds were stacked against me as many people in my situation growing up would not have made it through high school,” Wellwerts noted. “I made the decision early in my teen years that I would not be a victim of the deteriorating cycle my family created.”
Wellwerts rose to the rank of Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. He learned the best way to lead was by his own actions and his own resolve. With limited resources, he ensured his battalion’s readiness in Afghanistan as the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment helped with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in 2014. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his work.
“I got back from Afghanistan on September 11, 2014,” said Wellwerts. “It was a surreal moment during my enlistment because it almost felt like coming back on that day was written in a movie script.”
But for the Phoenix native, the script wasn’t complete. It was simply switching scenes.
Wellwerts married his high school sweetheart, Sandra, whom he met at Apollo High School. When he was discharged from the Marines in 2015, they moved back to Phoenix. She began to teach high school math in Glendale. He enrolled in Glendale Community College.
The aptitude he showed toward military service helped him excel as a college student. But it wasn’t easy.
“During night classes I would find myself exhausted during some courses, but I felt wide awake during my criminal justice classes,” Wellwerts recalled. “I just had a personal passion that would keep me intrigued.”
He soon transferred to the the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the ASU West campus in Glendale. It was there that adviser Karla Moreno-Arias suggested the first-generation student seek a second degree. Moreno-Arias pointed out that his GI Bill would pay for two majors if they were taken at the same time.
“I sent him an e-mail to congratulate him on his success and he responded with ‘hey, if you wouldn't have told me that it was possible, I wouldn't have done it,’” Moreno-Arias said.
Wellwerts dedication paid off. He is the fall 2018 outstanding graduate of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. He graduates with a second degree in public service and public policy with an emphasis in business from the School of Public Affairs. Both schools are in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions in downtown Phoenix. And both are top ten rated schools in the nation based on US News & World Report rankings.
“It was pretty difficult going from a criminology and criminal justice class to a public affairs class because you were looking at society from a different lens, but I would say they both balance each other out very well,” Wellwerts said.
During the fall 2018 semester, Wellwerts interned with the Phoenix Fire Department's Community Assistance Program or CAP. As a CAP team member, he provided on-scene crisis intervention and victim assistance services throughout Phoenix.
“My internship allowed me to experience the situations that people find themselves in; it can be the worst day of a person’s life,” Wellwerts said. “It gave me more insight so I can understand what people are going through and how they see their situation.”
His own situation growing up continues to guide his future. The dual-degree graduate plans to go back to school in a couple years to earn an MBA from ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business.
“Business and money management have become a personal venture,” Wellwerts said. “I’ve seen what happens financially when you have incarcerated family, drug-induced household members and mismanagement of family funds.”
It also helped that his commanding officer in the Marine Corps highly encouraged Wellwerts to get a business degree.
“He would often say that, “Everything is business,” Wellwerts recalled.
First, the former Marine hopes to get hired on with the Phoenix Police Department. Ultimately, Wellwerts would like to work in narcotics. He knows his life experience and education can make a difference.
“If I could help just one family so that a child does not have to experience what I suffered through as a kid, it will be worth it.”