Dr. Debbie Webster loves horror movies. Not the blood and guts variety, but scary movies with a psychological twist. Her favorite is The Conjuring. Not surprising, given she holds a Master's and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology with a specialty in Abnormal Psychology. However, Dr. Webster, Phoenix College's Behavioral Sciences Department Chair, wasn't always without fear. Her determination to face her fears as a child and young adult might be what makes watching scary movies entertaining for her now. "When I was ten, I witnessed a little boy in a horrible car accident. I had a hard time getting into a car after that." But learn to drive she did. She also doesn't like heights, but she climbed a mountain in Geology class and a 40-foot tower in the military reserves. "The point is," she said, "face your fears. If you don't, you'll shy away from experiences you might enjoy."
From Philly to Phoenix
Born in Philadelphia, Dr. Webster grew up in the 70s, the era of Peace and Love. She lived in a multicultural neighborhood–Jewish, Black, Italian–and was one of nine children in a Catholic family. Her father was a police officer and eventually a special agent to the mayor of Philadelphia. "I was lucky to come up with a father who provided for us very well." Her parents were big proponents of education, sending Dr. Webster to twelve years of Catholic school. Her godparents were Jewish and advised her not to let race stand in the way of what she wanted to achieve. "Even though I grew up in the era of Peace and Love," she recalled, "there was a real world going on too, so they reminded me to go after what I wanted."
"My culture, my schooling became a part of me," Dr. Webster said. "Philadelphia had some outrageous people, but it was where a lot of music was born." She used to dance backup for The Spinners, The Four Tops, and Cool and the Gang. Her nickname when she entered the club was Debbie Car Superstar. "I like to dance, I like to joke, I like to have fun, but I'm a serious person too. I look at problems and wonder how I can help."
In addition to her Psychology degrees, Dr. Webster has a Master's degree in Education with an emphasis in human relations counseling. She also attended ASU law school. "I was going to be a lawyer," she said. "As much as I love people and helping them, I can argue a point." So can her husband. In 1984, he convinced Debbie Car Superstar to leave Philly's snow and ice and move to Arizona, where they could walk on the ground without slipping and sliding. In law school, Dr. Webster was a mother to young children. A conflict between a 7 am class and getting her girls to school on time had her consider an alternate career path: "People always came to me for advice when they were feeling bad, so I thought Psychologist!" A judge who taught her Constitutional Law class remained a mentor. "Even though I didn't stay in law, he continued to make sure I was doing okay in school."
An Advocate for Students
Her penchant for education and arguments makes Dr. Webster a fierce advocate for students, staff, and faculty. As President of the Maricopa Council on Black American Affairs (MCBAA), Dr. Webster wrote the rationale for Juneteenth as a holiday and presented it to Chancellor Steven Gonzales. Within weeks, the holiday became official for Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) employees and students. "It's valuable for people of color to know that we have a person in leadership representing people across the board," she said of Chancellor Gonzales. While policies and persuasion are essential to institutions, "it's all about the students for me," said Dr. Webster, who was awarded a Distinguished Teaching Award in 2022.
Lauren Bradley, a Phoenix College grad, took PSY 230 and PSY 290 with Dr. Webster. "With online classes becoming the norm, I had my doubts about receiving a high level of education. But Dr. Webster blew every doubt and misconception I had out of the park! She treated me with respect and kindness. She genuinely wanted me, me personally, to grasp and understand the concepts she was teaching." Lauren credits Dr. Webster's check-ins, online videos, and class resources for the positive impact on her learning.
Lauren is one semester away from earning her BA in Psychology from Arizona State University and applying for grad school: "I'm the first in my family to attend college, an adult student, which means full-time work and school, and a woman of color. Having a professor who was also a woman of color has been pretty rare in my academic and personal pursuits in psychology. Dr. Webster has had a huge impact on my educational experience as well as my outlook on my future career in psychology."
The Value of Education
The value of a college education for Dr. Webster is having the tools, critical thinking skills, and the correct methodology to examine the evidence. As a statistics teacher, she loves data and how it can impact our decisions at the college level. "When we examine the evidence, we see how our work impacts students." Dr. Webster's outlook was upbeat and palpable as the featured speaker at the inaugural Bear Talk Series presented by Student Life and Leadership in January 2023. She acknowledged the need to lift each other up and overcome hardships. "Make sure you have a support system around you," she said. "Be involved in clubs to connect."
Her daughters are the biggest joys of her life. Her oldest daughter is a therapist and director at a behavioral health agency and adjunct faculty. Her middle daughter is also a director at a behavioral health agency, has her doctorate, and was an OYO in PC's Counseling Department a few years ago. Her youngest daughter works in finance. However, it's her twenty-year-old grandson, Darius Diggs, who conjures up the most pride. "He has mentors from the attorney general's office to lead senator's offices. He knows the political arena so well that many want to work with him."
While Dr. Webster's story often includes everybody else—she's collaborative and focused on inclusivity—her colleagues and students are lucky to work with her. We applaud your achievements, Dr. Webster, and thank you for playing a central role in PC's history.