Akili Atkinson: How to Eat an Elephant

Akili Atkinson, CLS Class of 2014Monday morning at 5:30, Akili Atkinson’s alarm starts beeping. She gets up and heads out the door to be at work by 8. At 4:30, she heads to gym and is home by 6. Dinner is at 6:15 and from 6:30 until 9:30, it’s schoolwork. She is in bed by 10, so she can wake up and do it all over again. Saturday brings a slight reprieve: she sleeps until 6:30. Then, it’s schoolwork until noon. She breaks for lunch and a quick workout until 2, then its schoolwork again until 6:00. Finally, she has a few free hours to relax. Sunday morning is time for church and family, but from 2:00 to 6:00, its schoolwork again. It’s been like this every day without fail for three years. But on May 10, this discipline will be worth it when she receives her Bachelor of Arts in Administrative Leadership from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Liberal Studies.

After growing up in California, Atkinson moved to Oklahoma with her husband and two children. Being a stay-at-home mom, her focus was her children, and she saw little need for higher education for herself. When her children left the nest and started college, she began working at a small nonprofit to get back into the professional world. But life had other plans for Akili. After separating from her husband after 21 years, Akili recognized that her nonprofit job wasn’t going to be enough to support her needs long term and decided it was time for a change. It was time to get a college degree.

“I decided that I need to learn something more about the world and what it has to offer,” Atkinson said.

Since OU’s College of Liberal Studies caters to the nontraditional student, she knew that is where she belonged.

“I needed a program that allowed me to set my own pace and figure out how to do this. I knew I could do it, but I needed someone to say I could do it at my own pace,” Atkinson said. “CLS allowed me to do that. This program said, ‘We’re going to deal with who you are now, not who you were 25 years ago. ’”

The Learning Curve

After being out of high school for more than 20 years, the idea of returning to school was tough. As a high school athlete, Atkinson admits she was more focused sports than her studies.

“I was not on board with the concept of school at all,” Atkinson said. The day she received her acceptance letter, she was nervous and anxious about what lay ahead.  But her kids came home for the weekend and gave her a full tutorial on returning to school and how much it has changed. The spiral notebooks she bought needed to be set aside, her kids explained. They introduced her to a whole new educational world, filled with laptops, Word documents, dropboxes, and more. “There was nothing traditional about the road to my degree,” she said.

Atkinson knew she wanted a degree that would allow her to help others, and the CLS administrative leadership program fit the bill. “I have an ability to lead a team, and I want to continue that,” she said.

Atkinson’s career and regular life had to keep going as she was completing her coursework, so she opted to take 100 percent of her courses online. She spent her lunch hours writing papers. She sacrificed her summer and winter breaks by getting credits through OU Intersession. She did whatever it took to get ahead and get one step closer to her dream.

One Bite at a Time

Achieving her dream hasn’t come without its ups and downs. Despite struggling with time management, exhaustion, learning each professor’s style, keeping up with new technology, and even once being out of state with a broken computer and a paper due, Atkinson has managed to stay positive and motivated. She has never met any of her professors in person; many of them have helped her keep up the momentum with kind words.

“I’ve gotten a lot of way-to-gos,” she said. “I got a lot of encouragement when I needed it, and even when I didn’t need it, I could bank it for later on.”

Atkinson also credits her coworkers and boss as being a driving force in reaching her goals. Her supervisors encouraged her to share what she was learning during their weekly meetings and she even helped get a coworker enrolled at CLS.

Atkinson has not only received advice and wisdom from friends and family; she also has some to offer others.  While she had her own fears and reservations about coming to college later in life, she has not met a challenge she couldn’t handle. She stands by what her boss told her, an old adage from Creighton Abrams: the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. And while this has been quite a large elephant, she has no regrets at all and would encourage anyone thinking about coming back to school to take the plunge.

“Whatever excuse you have, I have five reasons why you should do it,” Atkinson said. “The value you’re going to get is worth it.”

Looking Ahead

Atkinson will graduate from OU with a bachelor’s degree May 10. She originally planned to attend the CLS convocation, but she has a more important obligation that day. She will be traveling to Stillwater to watch her son graduate from Oklahoma State University with a degree in health promotion. When asked if she was upset that she won’t walk at her own graduation, she smiled. “I thought there wasn’t going to be anything better than walking across that stage, but there is nothing bigger than the fact I am finishing. That’s my accomplishment.”

Atkinson looks forward to a summer that promises no Intersession or summer classes for the first time in three years. She hopes to spruce up her yard, plant some flowers, and catch up on reading for pleasure.

“I have a stack of books I haven’t been able to read. I’m going to start with whatever’s the sappiest and doesn’t require any thought,” she said.

But this summer is only a brief reprieve for this go-getter. She is returning to CLS in the fall to work toward a Master of Arts in Human and Health Services Administration. Once again, she will be working full time and taking all of her classes online.

The only problem in her future is the dilemma of walking at her next graduation. Her daughter is expected to graduate from UCO at about the same time. But if you ask Akili, it doesn’t really matter.

“The walk would be nice, but I’ve been walking for three years. And I’ve completely enjoyed my own transformation.”