First ACCESS student gains certificate, independence

Katherine Phillips has proudly begun the next chapter of her life following four years of study at the university; however her extraordinary success story is a little different than that of most Mississippi State students.

Katherine was awarded a four-year certificate of completion from the ACCESS program during Mississippi State’s May graduation ceremonies. With the help of the program, she was able to embrace college life and experience a new level of personal independence.

During her time at MSU, Katherine accomplished educational and social goals at her own pace. Her disabilities are the result of a malignant brain tumor diagnosed at the young age of two, and since that time she has worked very hard to achieve her goals.

“I know ACCESS helped me tremendously. I have grown through my involvement in a campus sorority and other activities like the Wesley Foundation and the Reformed University Fellowship, and I learned job skills to take with me in life,” said Katherine.

MSU ACCESS is an inclusive program for students with intellectual disabilities who do not generally meet Mississippi State’s standard admissions requirements. ACCESS is an acronym for academics, campus life, community involvement, employment opportunities, socialization and self-awareness––the vital components of challenging students to reach a level of independence. Academic plans for ACCESS participants are customized to the individual and certificates of successful completion are awarded at the four-year program’s conclusion.

Before ACCESS, Mississippi State was limited in how it could welcome students with intellectual disabilities into the student body. However, the program was implemented with Katherine as its first student for the 2010-11 academic year. A year later, Livingston Harper, son of Gregg and Sidney Harper of Pearl, transferred into the program and has now earned a certificate along with Katherine.

Although Mississippi State has a long history of support for students with disabilities, according to Julie Capella, assistant dean and director of Student Support Services, programs designed to provide higher education for students with intellectual disabilities are a relatively new concept.

“Katherine was one of the special members of the MSU student body who did not meet academic admissions requirements, but who needed assistance with making the next step as she moved into adulthood,” said Capella. “She has done beautifully, and we are very proud she was our first student. As our first four-year certificate holder, she will make a great ambassador for ACCESS.”

Katherine’s story is one Capella will use to inspire others to follow Katherine’s trailblazing path, and one Katherine’s parents, Chat and Mary Kay Phillips of Yazoo City, will proudly share with advocates of higher education.

“Katherine was able to go from a child that was completely dependent on us as parents to a lovely young woman who is spiritually sound, emotionally strong, has a will that you cannot stop, and can live independently. A parent couldn’t ask for any more than that,” said Mary Kay Phillips.

Chat Phillips also shares his gratitude of how the ACCESS program prepared his daughter for life after college.

“As part of her studies, Katherine worked at the local elementary school in Starkville and that experience sparked an interest of working in early childhood education. Our church has a daycare, she is now working with three and four year-olds,” he said.

Currently five students are enrolled in ACCESS, and private support is essential to ensure these students and future enrollees will reach the level of success they must achieve.

“For families of students with disabilities, the financial cost often is a barrier to a college experience, since no government or other subsidies currently are available. Even if finances are available, permitting a child with an intellectual disability to leave for university study can be a big step for families to take,” said Capella.

Capella said she hopes private contributions and future grants will become available to help offset costs for families interested in ACCESS. “In spite of the challenges that exist to embrace this program, there are no doubts about the value of the program for Katherine, Livingston, and future students,” she said.

After placing their faith in the program by enrolling Katherine, the Phillips’ generously extended their financial support of Mississippi State University to include this area.

“A gift to ACCESS benefits the entire university—students and faculty—everybody that is aware of the program is impacted by it in some positive way,” said Chat.

Katherine’s connection with ACCESS will be perpetual through a recently established scholarship in her honor. The Katherine Pauline Phillips Endowed Scholarship created by her parents will not only carry Katherine’s successful legacy through its name, but it will also impact students with financial need.

“Katherine is excited about other special needs students being able to attend the ACCESS program as a result of the scholarship,” said Chat.

The inspiration to create an endowed scholarship was two-fold for the Phillips family.

“ACCESS students do not qualify for grants and student loans used by so many students today, and we feel very strongly that any child who is a good fit for the program and wants to attend should be able to, regardless of finances,” said Chat.

Secondly, the family feels Mississippi State is a better institution as a result of having the ACCESS program.

“We wanted to do what we could to make sure that ACCESS continues, and hopefully help it reach full enrollment and extend outwardly into the community,” said Chat.

Besides the Phillips family, another significant contribution for ACCESS has come from the Columbus-based Gildea Foundation. Gifts for ACCESS are part of Mississippi State’s Infinite Impact campaign, and alumni and friends may contact Wes Gordon, director of development for the Division of Student Affairs, at 662-325-9129 or email him at to contribute.

By Amy Cagle, Photography by Megan Bean and Russ Houston

TOP: Katherine Phillips works with a display of children’s bows at a Starkville retail business where she interned to gain employment skills. BOTTOM: Livingston Harper and Katherine Phillips at MSU’s Spring graduation.