ATHENS, Ohio - Forum columnist and kindness advocate Nicole Phillips didn't know why she needed to attend the Ohio University women's basketball game on Feb. 17, but she'd been asked to be there, so she sat in the stands with the rest of the fans.
Turns out she was an honored guest.
At halftime, Phillips was called down to the floor and announced as the recipient of the Empowering Women Award, an honor bestowed annually by the university's Women's Center to a woman who has taken on leadership roles in an effort to improve the lives of women.
Phillips was taken aback - and then immediately and deeply touched.
Weeks earlier, the Women's Center director had emailed Phillips with a cryptic request to attend the game.
As a breast cancer survivor, Phillips assumed Feb. 17 had been designated as an opportunity to recognize those battling the disease as well as women who've overcome it.
Another email arrived just days before the event confirming that Phillips would be in attendance.
During the halftime presentation, nearly 100 female student leaders involved in a range of organizations were recognized before Phillips was singled out as the award recipient.
"I started to cry," Phillips said during a phone interview this week. "I felt my throat well up and my eyes filled up... I was just so touched."
Phillips said the award, which was based on her work as a champion for using kindness to overcome obstacles, including breast cancer, validates her work.
"People understand that kindness is important, and it is powerful," Phillips said about what the award symbolizes. "From that perspective, it felt so beautiful. In the same vein, I'm looking at all these people in the arena applauding and standing up, and the only reason I get to do what I do is because of other people - other women who have lifted me up ... It's true that empowered women empower other women."
Phillips said receiving the award in front of her family was especially poignant.
"They see this behind the scenes, where I'm plugging away in my office and then my words go out and magically appear in the newspaper," she said. "Now my kids get to see that those words are landing on someone's heart."
Her husband, Saul, who is the head coach of the Ohio University men's basketball team, had no idea that his wife was going to be recognized at the event either. Phillips said her husband was emotional about the recognition as well.
"It's very, very much an honor for our whole family," she said.
Last year, Ohio University Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Shari J. Clarke received the Empowering Women Award.