By Elisabeth Wall
Given: Kemal Atkins ’92 ’96 would go to college. “It wasn’t a matter of if I went to college; it was when and where,” Atkins explained. The former Appalachian State University student-athlete is a first generation college graduate, who also, according to his family, set the example for his three younger siblings and 15 cousins, all of whom have completed college. “In my family education is everything,” he continued. “Did I mention my grandmother, at age 63, went to college and earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing?” Atkins is a dissertation away from earning his doctorate in educational leadership from Delaware State University. “I truly believe that education provides a transformative experience for people,” he said.
Atkins was recruited to play football for Appalachian from his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. “The opportunity to play Division I football brought my attention to the institution. I learned more about App State’s football program, academic offerings and supportive environment… I got involved with campus life. I attended performances by the Black Student Association’s Gospel Choir led by Dr. Fleming and, as a graduate student, worked in the Graduate School office and with the Learning Assistance Program (LAP). I developed great relationships with the faculty and staff and coaches – not to mention my teammates and other athletes.”
While Atkins attended Appalachian, the coach who recruited him, Sparky Woods, accepted the head coach position at the University of South Carolina and was replaced by Jerry Moore. The wide receiver said that transition was pivotal to his personal growth. “We had to step up and support one another and it required all of us working together. …App State was a place that really nurtured me and my teammates while also challenging us to be the very best,” Atkins said. “It’s no accident that so many of my teammates have found some level of success in our chosen professions and in our personal lives.”
(Coincidentally, in a separate interview, Atkins’ roommate Steve Wilks, today a head defensive coach for the NFL Carolina Panthers, also remarked about the impact of the coaches’ transition, and how the manner in which it was handled has influenced his coaching technique.)
“Being a college student and a student-athlete, I’ve experienced the benefits of education firsthand,” he said. “Helping other people realize the same benefits has drawn me to higher education.”
Atkins began his career as director of ThinkCOLLEGE, a college access program for high school and college students, and has been paving the way for others to succeed ever since. Before joining Keene State College as vice president for student affairs and enrollment management in 2014, Atkins served as vice president for student affairs and Title IX coordinator at Delaware State University, a historically black university in Dover, Delaware. In this role, Atkins had the responsibility for the leadership and strategic management of 14 departments including undergraduate admissions. He presided over three consecutive years of record enrollment growth while also improving the academic profile of the freshman class.
During Atkins’ tenure, the Division of Student Affairs was recognized by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education for successfully re-assembling the units within the division to effectively enhance the student experience, creating a comprehensive approach to enrollment management, and for using ongoing assessment practices to modify, enhance and develop effective student programs and services.
Atkins served as an admissions officer in Appalachian’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions , a position he said launched his career in higher education. He has also held administrative positions at East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina General Administration (where he led initiatives in college access, and academic and student affairs). In addition, he was an adjunct faculty member at Central Piedmont Community College.
Atkins has stayed involved with Appalachian since his graduation, leveraging his different job responsibilities to stay in touch with his Appalachian network in a variety of ways: working with enrollment management and multi-cultural affairs to coordinate student visits to Appalachian; speaking on campus career panels; and helping place students from Appalachian and across the UNC system as interns in Washington, D.C.
“Appalachian is a place where people care about you as individuals, a place where people are willing to provide support and encouragement,” he said. “In order to do this, an institution needs resources. Giving is important. Education is the gift that keeps on giving.”
Some of the people Atkins recalled with respect and affection:
Chancellor [John E.] Thomas came to our practices at the beginning of every season, offered support for student-athletes and told us what he expected of us. Coach Woods, [Coach] Jerry Moore, Joe Watts in admissions and enrollment, [Dr.] Harry Williams, [Delaware State University President] was my undergraduate orientation leader – I served under him at Delaware State. [English Professor] Dr. Thomas McGowan was my academic advisor and supported me throughout my career. With the exception of one place… he’s visited me at every job. [Former Vice Chancellor for Student Development] Cindy Wallace was very supportive... they all modeled the behavior you wanted to see and that are essential to leadership: authenticity, integrity, vision, discipline, empowerment, selection of the right people to be on your team.