June 14, 2023

Phillips' leadership makes room for all

Samuel smiles for a photo in front of "Ascent," a sculpture on Tower Square in Downtown Lincoln.

Samuel Phillips smiles for a photo in front of "Ascent," a sculpture on Tower Square in Downtown Lincoln.

Editor’s Note — This Q&A is the first in a weekly conversation series that is celebrating Pride Month on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Medium page. The series will feature Huskers who are making impacts on campus and look to maintain that momentum in future careers.

Pride graphic
For this week of Pride Month 2023, we’re talking with Samuel Phillips, a Husker gymnast and hospitality, restaurant and tourism management major with a minor in film studies from Los Angeles, California. Through his work on campus, he is leading as a positive role model and making room for everyone.
You’re passionate about leadership and are now the Husker Men’s Gymnastics Captain and Husker Student-Athlete Advisory Committee president. Where does that passion come from and is there anything you’re proud of from your work with SAAC or as captain?

I would say that passion started when I came into college. I was captain of my club team in high school, so I was always passionate about leadership and stepping into a role that can help and bring out the best possible version of people. My coach told me,“Don’t be just another gymnast floating through the program, change the culture there.” And I had a great person to look up to: Anton Stephenson (a Husker Men’s Gym captain, SAAC president and NCAA Top 10 award recipient). I wanted to be just like him and obtain the level of leadership and trust he did. I am so proud of my work as SAAC president, instituting the Student Athlete Formal and The Annual Student Athlete Cornhole Tournament, both the first of their kinds. Furthermore, I am a founding member of our Nebraska Athlete Ally Chapter, which is the first LGBTQ+ student athlete-centered group in the stadium. Breaking barriers, going further to do the unexpected, and making room for all student-athletes of every form is what drives me every day.

As captain, I make sure to learn from the mistakes of the past and build a team based out of love for one another, trust, respect and a burning desire to excel not just as gymnasts, but as humans. I am proud to be in the middle of a structural practice change within our gym. We have had ideas for years, but not quite the space to voice or try them out. Spearheading change and bringing an open line of communication to the team from the coach has been a great win.

In an article with the DN, they talk about how you’ve never been afraid of big goals. Can you talk a bit more about that and how it has served you well in your time at Nebraska?

Yeah I don’t see anything as impossible. I don’t fear big goals, I love them. They challenge me to overcome obstacles. I’ll always voice a goal and someone will say, “Oh well, that’s never happened.” Or, “Yea, but you won’t be able to do that, it’s so hard.” And I take that as a challenge. I take that as, “Oh really? Watch me do it.” I love proving people wrong and climbing up that hill of challenge. And each time I climb, I end up making new connections in the department or even reaching new heights that allow for other ideas to take hold.

Being a student-athlete at Nebraska provides a big platform. Why is being a positive role model so important?

It’s so, so important to be a positive influence in this world that currently has lots of intolerance and ignorance producing hateful actions. I am the only out male athlete at Nebraska, and it’s lonely and isolating at times. But I think back to what if younger me saw me? How secure and hopeful he would be in himself if he saw an out male athlete being so involved and having a prominent role in all athletics and athletic-related departments. I choose to be a lighthouse for those younger than me but also those next to me who aren’t ready to come out and live their lives on this lit-up stage. So yes, being a positive role model is so important in this way. It’s representation, and it’s a signal that it’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to step into these spaces being as authentically you as you can be.

Samuel Phillips competes in a gymnastics competition
Scott Bruhn | Nebraska Communications
Samuel Phillips competes in the Big 10 men's gymnastics championship.
Talk about helping start the first Ally chapter for student-athletes.

Oh my god, what a ride, what an excitement! We first went to the Athlete Ally Leadership Summit last summer and we were amazed by the organization and what it has produced on other college campuses. We knew we not only wanted to build that part of the community here, but we needed it. We were so hungry for more, we went to the Athlete Ally Action Awards in October not knowing it was solely just a banquet. But a few months later, through endless communication and logistics building, with the help of Philip Carpio (our former DEI Life Skills staff), we got established as a chapter. Since then, we have just taken off.

We had five meetings within two and a half months, hosted a lunch and learn to present in front of admin members, and went on our first trip as a group to Chicago for the LGBTQ Big Ten Symposium. It has been a ride and an honor to work with fellow athletes who I have seen grow and really step into their own selves within this last year. It’s a glorious blessing to grow alongside others and realize the impact of what you’re doing. Making change and changing at the same time is a euphoric feeling. It’s metaphysical and it’s truly what life is about.

You balance your major with athletics and other involvements on campus. What pushes you to succeed and/or make an impact?

It’s tough. There are times I have to step back, align priorities and adjust my time and scheduling. Every year, my plate gets bigger, but I also get stronger so I can handle and carry more on it. I think what pushes me to be better is myself. I am a hyper-competitive person, so I am always trying to beat my own expectations and grow into a version of me that I see in the future.

I struggle with self-doubt and imposter syndrome, so sometimes to combat that, I step even more firmly into my position in life, whether that be as a leader, organizer or gymnast. I try to tackle life even more aggressively with more fire…to plant my foot down so solidly to make a statement, “No I belong here and I’m meant to do this.” I might not know God’s plan for me but I know the gifts he gave me, and I trust in his guidance. I trust in my love for him and his love for me. I look up to him to trust in my work. If what I am doing is making the world a better place and helping people through love, then what I am doing is on the right path.

Is there anything you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?

Lots of things. Be an advocate. Create a more inclusive space in Nebraska. Have the best hospitality company in America that reaches worldwide on a business scale. Win an Oscar. Produce and direct a dream superhero movie series of mine. Own my restaurants — I basically want to do it all.

What is your advice to other students looking to make an impact on campus?

Don’t let anyone tell you no and don’t let administration or staff guide/push you away. There will be times where you think they are helping you, but they are just keeping you still to not ruffle any feathers. No. Push past that. Dive in headfirst and headstrong. Be aggressive with communication and come to play with a clear vision of what you want to do and how you will use resources to do it.

Anything else you’d like to talk about?

This goes out to all administration and staff at UNL. Sometimes it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you DON’T say. You could think you are creating a safe or inclusive space, but if you don’t vocalize it, then how will students know? If you don’t outwardly call out bigotry or hateful intolerance, then how will anyone know you don’t support that? It’s the small things. It’s what you don’t say when you stay silent, that students like me notice. And in this day and age, it’s becoming dangerous. Laws are being passed…threats are being said…and narratives are being drawn out. Now more than ever it’s important to say the things that are meant to be said and be active in picking a ground to stand on. This is when the queer community looks inconspicuously for safe spaces to reside in. Be that safe space. Be that voice. Be brave, not only for you, but for the kids looking up to you, the people standing beside you, and God looking down onto you.