For nearly all his life, KU College alumnus Phillip McGruder has felt a duty to make an impact on the world. Inspired by his mother’s determination to earn a college degree during the American civil rights movement, he was driven to be a role model for those who may not otherwise have one. And, having been diagnosed with autism early in life, he faced social stigmas of his own growing up.
Phillip knew he wanted to be Jayhawk the first time he set foot on KU’s Lawrence campus. The people and resources offered at the University, as well as its close proximity to his hometown in Kansas City, Kansas, made for an easy decision. But early on, he realized the extent to which feelings of social isolation affect life at the University for students with autism. So he decided to do something about it.
Meet Phillip, founder of Believe Autism Matters (KU BAM), which aims to increase awareness of autism at KU and in Lawrence and improve the lives of individuals with autism. Learn about how he brought BAM to life, his current work with the Kansas City Chiefs, and how experiences at KU led him to get behind a cause that matters.
Where are you from? And why did you decide to come to KU?
I am from Kansas City, Kansas, born and raised. I’ve wanted to come to KU since I was a little kid growing up 45 minutes east of Lawrence. The first time I stepped foot on KU’s campus, I got the feeling that it was the place where I belonged. I toured the facilities, met great people who were very nice and also provided the resources that I felt would allow me to have success, and that’s what my decision was based on. Lawrence is a wonderful college town as well. Great community, great places to visit, and it’s a great place to study and have peace and quiet.
Why did you choose your major? Was there a moment when you decided this is what you wanted to study? What was that journey like?
I earned my Bachelor of General Studies in Liberal Arts and Sciences with an emphasis in Sports Management. I chose my major because the General Studies major doesn’t focus on one specific course of study, but rather provides students with a well-rounded set of core classes in many areas. Students can then decide what interests them most and continue on to concentrate on specific academic areas.
I decided to major in General Studies when I created “Believe Autism Matters,” and I noticed that the program offered the courses that would make me a better person and leader. I was in the Sports Management program and at the time I didn’t fulfill my requirements. The General Studies degree helped me to become a well-rounded individual. I was still able to take Sports Management courses and follow my dreams of working in the world of sports.
How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?
I work for the Kansas City Chiefs as a guest service representative during games and concerts. My job is to provide “Championship service,” to make sure the fans have a great time. We guide fans to their seats, provide information if needed, and make sure things don’t get out of hand. Sometimes, depending on a situation, we provide a level of security just in case. Sometimes I would hype the crowd up because Arrowhead Stadium is the loudest stadium in the world. The 2018 season where the Chiefs were one game away from Super Bowl 53 was a great experience, even though it didn’t turn out in our favor.
Networking was the most important aspect from my degree that helped prepare me for this job. The BGS major provides students the opportunity to customize their major and minor areas of concentration rather than adhere to the sequence of courses that is required of students in the respective BA/BS programs. Because of that, it helped me to work around my schedule of classes with my areas of focus like taking those Sports Management courses. Those courses would help me meet the requirements that the organization was looking for, and I also believe it will lead to a bigger opportunity. I also went to the Career Center to create my resumes. That was tough at first because I was released from the Sports Management program, and I was also dealing my father’s passing. But in the end, it worked out well.
What is the benefit of being in the KU College alongside students studying sciences, arts and humanities?
I feel confident that students in the College gain a better understanding of the world we live in today. I was glad to meet people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and found that working together in this program made us well-rounded individuals. I gained a better understanding of the world around me through my peers in the College, and I hope to apply the lessons that I learned in my courses and from my peers as I strive to make a difference in the world.
Tell us about Believe Autism Matters. How did you decide to start that origination, and what was the experience like? What do you hope to achieve?
The focus of Believe Autism Matters (KU BAM) is to increase the KU and Lawrence community’s awareness of autism, and to improve the lives of those affected by the disorder. Through fundraising, I also sought to establish scholarship support for people on the spectrum at KU, attract speakers, fund programs, support community advocacy, organize monthly events encouraging social networking, and connect with the autism research program at the KU Edwards campus.
It began with talks during my first year at KU with my floor mate at Templin at the time, Brian Gier. Brian already had experience in spreading Autism awareness in high school. I was happy to meet someone with awareness of my disability, and we decided to create the group. The next step was sending the information through the University Daily Kansan on September 20, 2014, the beginning of KU BAM. I wanted to inspire those who have autism and are silent, to let them know that they are important and that they are included.
I was diagnosed with autism when I was an infant and it’s been a somewhat turbulent journey for me. But I survived the bullying and verbal abuse, and I became a better individual in the process. A major difference between those dealing with autism at the University and those who do not is a feeling of social isolation. My group attempts to remedy that, especially for those who felt they were labeled as socially awkward before college. When I first got to KU, people didn’t assume I had autism. When people would tell me, “I didn’t know you were I autistic,” I kind of took offense. I would think to myself, “This person doesn’t really know what autism is.” That’s what motivated me to create BAM and reach out to those that have faced a similar path. I hope to continue to provide Awareness post-KU, and I’m actually thinking about starting another organization focused on providing awareness like BAM did.
What advice would you give to KU students who want to start or get involved with an organization to advocate for a cause they believe in?
My advice to students is to follow your intuition. If you have that gut feeling that you want to get behind a cause that you believe in, go for it. Find individuals that have the same mind-set, learn about resources, and make connections in order to make it a reality.
Give a shout-out to a professor, mentor, advisor, or someone at KU who has helped you?
I met a lot of great faculty members during my time at KU, many of whom are not at KU anymore. I wish I could name them all because they really helped me during my time there, and I wouldn’t have made without them. One person is Dr. Scott Ward (a.k.a. Scooter). I took his History of Physical Education course at KU. It’s important to build relationships with your instructors at the beginning of each semester, but Dr. Ward was more than that. He is a dear friend who helped me and gave moral support during my rough period at KU. His encouragement is what motivated me to make a difference in the world. He reminds me of Mr. Russo from the TV show “Freaks and Geeks.” Like Mr. Russo, he’s the cool guidance counselor who often serves as a confidant to the main characters. He genuinely cares for the students, identifying their problems and offering cogent advice in an upbeat manner. That’s what makes him a great mentor.
What would you tell your freshman self?
Do not procrastinate. Step out of your comfort zone. Talk to your professors at the beginning of your first day of classes, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
What’s your best KU memory?
When Anthony Ianni, the first man with autism to play Division-1 Basketball at Michigan State, spoke on April 2, 2015 during Autism Awareness Day. His message was incredible and his story is similar to mine. From that moment, not only did I want to make an impact, I formed a brotherhood with Anthony. He’s my big-brother from another mother. The moment that made me cry tears of joy was when KU’s official Instagram posted my photo spreading Awareness on that day. I felt my message was brought to the forefront.
What motivates you?
What motivates me is that I am the living dream of my ancestors. Growing up, I was taught about African American history. My Mom became the first in my family to graduate college during the Civil Rights Era. For me, that display of determination, despite the obstacles, motivated me to graduate despite the stigmas I had faced.
I am a visual learner. I can visualize in my mind what my Mom and Dad went through during that era. When I hear her tell me those stories and how it had affected her, it motivated me to become a better person and to make a difference in the world. Also, I think about children who are growing up going through the same cycle like me when I was young. They probably don’t have a role model or an authority figure to show them the way. I have to get out of bed and strive to live well. If I don’t, I feel I would be disappointing those that came before me and went through turbulent times in the past in order for me to live in the present.
Be like Phillip. Believe in something, and let the world know why it matters. For more information, explore the B.G.S. in Liberal Arts & Sciences option and the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training at the University of Kansas. Check out more details about Phillip and BAM in the University Daily Kansan‘s 2016 article. Also, visit Believe Autism Matters and the Kansas City Chiefs.