On May 15, Carlene Akins, 44, of Little Rock, fulfilled her decades-long dream of earning a college degree as she graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication surrounded by family cheering for her.
“I am so excited about graduating because I didn’t think I was smart enough,” Akins said. “I used to think that people who didn’t go to college were just lazy or not smart enough, but now my whole mind frame of going to college is different. I think if you want to achieve that goal, that you should do it, no matter how long it takes you, no matter what stands in your way.”
Akins grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, one of 10 children and the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I’ve always wanted a college degree,” she said. “My mom said I wasn’t college material, that I would just be a wife and mother. I have two kids and two grandchildren. I had my oldest daughter at 21, but I still wanted to go to school. I saw the difference between having an education and not having one. Mostly, I want to show my two girls that no matter how your life turns out and what happens in it, that you can turn it around. At the same time, I wanted to prove to my parents that I was more than just a wife and mother.”
Before she moved to Little Rock, Akins worked as a paramedic in the St. Louis area. She decided to return to school after realizing that paramedics made less money than what she used to make in Missouri. She first attended University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College and then transferred to UA Little Rock in 2014.
“I chose mass communication because I have the gift of gab. I could sing, and I wanted to learn how to produce audio,” Akins said. “I ran into David Weekley (senior mass communication instructor), and he said, ‘Why would you chop your legs off and do one thing, when you can do a whole array of skills?’ I went home and thought about what he said and did the assessment to see what I was interested in. After I took a few classes, I got good grades. I took an audio and media broadcasting class, and I felt like I found my voice. I felt like I wasn’t important because I didn’t have a voice. I took more classes about media production and creating content. I felt like I was telling the story of how I feel.”
Akins has faced many challenges in earning her degree. While at UA Little Rock, she was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. Her diagnosis was so grim at one point that her husband took her on a spontaneous vacation to Europe because the doctors told him she would not survive.
“It was a learning experience,” she said. “I survived, and I’m stronger for it.”
Born three months premature, Akins has severe visual impairment due to Retinopathy of Prematurity, which made it difficult for her to read class materials and get to class since she cannot drive.
“I did use Disability Resource Services a lot. They are a lifesaver,” Akins said. “My vision kept me from doing a lot of stuff. Sometimes, I get a little anxious when it comes to my disability, but I don’t use it to make excuses. It makes me stronger.”
Akins credits Weekley, who inspired her to expand her horizons in mass communication, as well as Sonny Rhodes, associate professor of mass communication, and Jana McAuliffe, assistant professor of philosophy, for inspiring her to do her best at UA Little Rock.
“Dr. Sonny Rhodes was good. He made you want to do your homework, and he made you want to learn,” Akins said. “He valued you as a student and made sure you were getting what you needed to learn. He was one of my most valued professors. Jana McAuliffe taught me ethics. She was very challenging, but she made me want to succeed. She made me become a critical thinker.”
Akins, who currently works at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, is looking forward to traveling to Tokyo, Japan, in May 2019 to begin a six-month internship, where she will get experience in mass communication, broadcasting, public relations, and analytics.
In the upper right photo, graduate Carlene Akins (right) receives her diploma from Dr. Julien Mirivel, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Communication. Photo by Benjamin Krain.