Syracuse University Magazine

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Karima Akins '17

Driven by 'Difference'

When Karima Akins ’17 finished kindergarten at a Syracuse elementary school, she was bursting with confidence and a love of learning. But first grade in a new school district almost broke her spirit. She began to struggle academically, and when her parents insisted she be tested for learning disabilities, some significant issues were identified. “The day I found out I had a learning disability it felt like the world crushed me into pieces,” she recalls.

Being labeled a “resource kid” ate away at Akins’s self-confidence, but her parents encouraged her to hold onto her dream of becoming a lawyer. As she grew, so did that dream, and she resolved to make it happen by working harder than everyone else. “I developed solid study habits and became a good advocate for myself,” Akins says. She ignored the nasty comments, sought help whenever she needed it, and her grades improved with her outlook. “I saw how powerful my learning disability was in my life,” Akins says. “Here I was on the honor roll and I’m a resource kid! Just because I had a disability didn’t mean I wasn’t smart.”

By the time she entered high school, Akins was confident she could do anything she set her mind to. She played the violin, sang in the chorus, and volunteered extensively. But even after being inducted into the National Honor Society and earning an academic letter, she was told she wasn’t “college material.” So she decided to challenge everyone who thought she’d never make it and insisted on making Syracuse University her academic destination. “I ignored people who spoke negatively about my ‘different learning’ and embraced my disability accommodations,” Akins says.

She proved the naysayers wrong by enrolling at University College, becoming a third-generation SU student. “My family has a very rich legacy at SU, and I believe that Orange runs through my veins,” she says. Her father, Daniel Akins, graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1985 and is a nuclear technician for Entergy Corp. Her grandfather, Elton Cadogan, earned a degree in broadcast journalism from Newhouse in 1981, through University College (UC). Two uncles are also SU alumni. She was awarded an associate degree last May at UC’s Commencement Ceremony in Hendricks Chapel, and is now on target to graduate in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises. “UC has been very supportive of me,” Akins says.

Part-time study has allowed her to work as a receptionist in SU’s Career Services office while attending college. Her UC advisors helped her navigate the path to a degree as a confident, dean’s list student rather than someone struggling with disabilities. “I have been able to do everything a full-time student is able to do, and I love the campus diversity and willingness to help others,” she says.

Akins continues to feed her passion for community service. When a chapter of Delta Alpha Pi International Honor Society was organized at SU in 2015, she became its president. The organization provides scholarships, career connections, and leadership and service opportunities to students with physical and learning disabilities. “We recognize the academic accomplishments of high-achieving students by advocating and educating about disability,” she says.

Law school and a job in government remain two of Akins’s goals, and she even dreams of using her entrepreneurship studies to create her own law firm. Sometimes she thinks bigger and imagines herself as the CEO of an NFL or NBA team. “I love being the boss,” she says. “I’m different, and there’s nothing wrong with it.” —Mary Beth Horsington

Photo by Steve Sartori