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"I was told I would never go to college because of my disability. In 2019, I graduated with a PhD"

Dr. Kaycee Bills is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Fayetteville State University, located in North Carolina. As a woman with a disability, her passion is to be a role model for other students and help them achieve their academic dreams. When Kaycee was younger she was told she would never go to college because of her disability but in 2019 she graduated with a PhD in Social Work from the University of Tennessee. In her personal life, she enjoys travelling and playing with her two Pitbull rescues.

Photos courtesy of Dr Kaycee Bills

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your background, where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small town that no one has heard of called Columbia City, Indiana. Although I lived in the middle of a small cornfield, I had big dreams. I attended the University of Saint Francis on a tennis scholarship and earned my Bachelor's in Social Work. I then moved across the ocean and attended Hawaii Pacific University for my Master's in Social Work. After that, I attended the University of Tennessee for my PhD in Social Work.

2. You've mentioned to us that your disability made school very difficult and many people told you, you were not cut for college - but your story is one of resilience - how did you find the strength to overcome those voices?

When you have a disability, you participate in what is called an Individualized Education Plan each year. Every year, I stated that my goal was to go to college and work with disabilities. However, every year they would remind me of my flaws and my underachievement compared to my peers. Something inside me just told me I was better than what was said in those meetings. I was a bit of a rebel, so I found strength by learning to be my own advocate. I slowly proved them wrong by taking baby steps toward my goals. It all started with a college application I was told not to send.

"I was a bit of a rebel, so I found strength by learning to be my own advocate. I slowly proved them wrong by taking baby steps toward my goals"

3. Who inspired you when you were growing up?

This answer to this question tends to shock people. My inspiration was actually Detroit rapper, Eminem. He too was told his whole life that he would never achieve anything and look at him now! Temple Grandin also inspires me, she is an animal scientist who has Autism. She inspired my love for animals and showed me that you can have a disability and be successful. Additionally, my grandpa also inspired me with his constant praise.

4. You went on to study a BSW in social work, what made you want to study in this area and what was your experience like, what were the best moments and what were the challenges? 

I chose social work because I wanted to be the advocate that I never had. I knew that I wasn't the only person with a disability going through what I was. My best moment was putting on a pair of high heels and walking across that stage that I was told I would never set foot on. My biggest challenge was actually bullying. Again, I let the bullies motivate me, rather than beat me.

5. Tell us about the journey from studying your first degree to getting a PhD!

I like to call myself an "accidental academic." A PhD was something I never even dreamed of. Heck, I was just happy that I got accepted into a Master's program and was actually passing. When I was at Hawaii Pacific University, I worked as a research assistant. For the first time in my life, I was told that I was intelligent and good at academic work. I was told that I should apply for PhD programs, so I did. After several rejections, one day I got a phone call from the University of Tennessee. They told me I was accepted with a full ride. It was too good to pass up, so I figured I had nothing to lose! I enrolled into their PhD program that week.

"I like to call myself an 'accidental academic.' A PhD was something I never even dreamed of."

6. You're now a Professor and helping other students to pursue their dreams, what does this personally mean to you?

There are no words to describe what it means to me. I am a professor at a historically black college with a lot of potential. I work with students who face oppression and the first time I heard a student tell me they wanted to get a PhD because of me, it brought tears to my eyes. I now have the honour of spending my days writing letters of recommendations for amazing students who remind me of myself.

7. If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

I would tell my younger self that other people don't know my potential. I would tell myself that I even didn't know my potential. If I didn't even know my own potential, how could other people know?

8. What needs to be done in schools to ensure that nobody is discouraged from following their dreams?

No student should ever be told that something is out of reach for them. I don't care what it is. As a social worker, I believe in self-determination. If a student wants to do something, support it. Don't disagree with it. They know themselves better than you do.

"No student should ever be told that something is out of reach for them. I don't care what it is."

9. If there was one message you could share with everyone - what would it be?

Don't just dream, have a leap of faith and just do it! Send off that college application! Apply for that prestigious job that seems out of reach! Buy that plane ticket to the location you dream of living! Don't be afraid of failure. Failure is part of the process. You don't know what you're capable of until you try. Even if you have to try more than once. 

10. What's next for you and how can we support your journey?

Fayetteville is my home now. I have a lot of students who need an advocate or a role model. My next move is to stay here and make an impact on one student at a time. You can support my journey by joining me in promoting positivity and showcasing individuals who beat the odds. The more people we showcase, the more people we inspire.

You can follow Dr Kaycee's journey on Instagram @kayceebills


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