Dr. Kaycee Bills, who has autism, fought hard for her PhD against the voices of her disbelievers. Now, armed with her doctorate and a brand-new assistant professorship, she has become a voice of encouragement for those like her.
“I got bullied all the time,” Bills admitted to WTVD. “My teachers told my parents every year. … that college was not a goal for me.” Maybe she should learn a trade skill, they said.
However, Bills was determined to realize her potential. “Although I lived in the middle of a small cornfield, I had big dreams,” Bills, who hails from Columbia City, Indiana, explained to The Female Lead, an educational charity. “I was a bit of a rebel, so I found strength by learning to be my own advocate.”
Her journey began when she first sent her college application even after she was told not to.
Bills earned a Bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Saint Francis, choosing the subject because she wanted to become an advocate for those with disabilities.
In 2014, she left home and flew over 4,000 miles to Hawaii Pacific University to pursue a Master’s degree in social work.
Bills’s professors soon realized her potential as a research assistant at the Hawaii Pacific University. For the first time in her life, a PhD seemed possible. “I was told that I was intelligent and good at academic work,” she recalled. “I was told that I should apply for PhD programs, so I did.”
However, Bills was rejected from a number of PhD programs before finding the perfect fit in 2016. The University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville offered Bills a full scholarship.
Bills’s dissertation delved into issues from her own past. According to a post by UT College of Social Work on Facebook, she wrote about the relationship between extracurricular activity participation and being bullied among students with disabilities. Upon graduating in 2019, Bills had already amassed experience working with clients with disabilities and served in the U.S. Navy Reserves.
After landing a position as Assistant Professor of Social Work at Fayetteville State University, North Carolina, Bills is now living the academic life she dreamed of. “I know there are other kids out there. … who have the same issue of people saying, ‘You have a disability, you’re not going to achieve this,’” Bills told WTVD, “and I want to be that voice that I never had.”
Bills, who calls herself an “accidental academic,” joked that she sees the irony in a once-timid student who was scared to sit in big classrooms leading college classes of her own. But her goal overrides her fear.
“I am a professor at a historically black college with a lot of potential,” she explained. “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.”
Bills believes that schools should never discourage students from achieving what they really want to.
“No student should ever be told that something is out of reach for them,” she affirmed.
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