Avis Atkins doesn’t know the word “no.” That’s not in her vocabulary. She doesn’t use the words “can’t” and “defeat”, either. She could focus on the obstacles she has faced in her 25 years, but that would be negative and pointless. Atkins prefers to speak about the opportunities that have allowed her to succeed.
There have been many, starting shortly after her 8th birthday.
At the urging of her father, Atkins tested as highly gifted in third grade and was set on an educational track that elevated her into advanced learning classes in elementary, junior and high schools. She graduated high school with honors despite working three part-time jobs, and entered Long Beach State through the Long Beach College Promise. She was placed in the university honors program, settled on majoring in psychology, sociology and human development, and eventually graduated cum laude in all three.
Atkins moved east after Long Beach State, getting her master’s in Policy and Management at Harvard, and settled into the world of business in New York City. Atkins might have stumbled along the way, but she refuses to let obstacles detour her ambition.
“No barriers is my motto,” she said, proudly.
Atkin grew up feeling she could accomplish anything through education because she said her father, Ronald, was “so instrumental in showing me the value of education in order to transcend poverty and social status in general.”
It’s why she has started a scholarship for students who struggle with housing and food insecurities. It’s a place she knows well; she started her educational journey on the streets of San Bernardino.
Atkins, her two brothers and two sisters bounced from the Inland Empire to a tent pitched under the 101 Freeway to homeless shelters for nearly five years as her father, a veteran of the Vietnam War and addict, tried to piece together a life on disability checks. Her world was filled with hunger and loneliness and uncertainty.
“I went to 11 elementary schools before I was 7 years old,” Atkins said. “It was crazy. I literally had to introduce myself to a new class like every three months, four months.”
Despite the hardships, this is not a sad story. It is about the resolve of a down-on-his-luck father to give his children the best he could offer as they roamed the streets. This is also a story about a daughter learning how to use that resolve as a springboard to a better life for herself and others.
Although the family was constantly on the move, the one constant in Atkins’ vagabond world was her her father’s focus on education and the desire to learn. She carried her school books from one location to another until she and her siblings moved into her mother’s crowded two-bedroom apartment in Long Beach when she was 7 years old. Ten people shared the small apartment. It made studying difficult.
“It was crazy. It was not possible to study there,” she said. “I would stay hours and hours at school and take the late bus home just so I could have time to study.”
No one in the apartment questioned Atkins’ strong desire to learn, especially her siblings. While maybe not as gifted as Atkins, they also took their school work seriously.
“My dad ingrained it in all of us. He told us we would all go to college, so we all need to work hard,” Atkins said. “Luckily, it wasn’t something I did in vacuum because he instilled the value of education in all of us. If they weren’t supportive, it would have been super hard.”
Atkins said her mother was equally as supportive, largely because she didn’t want her children to end up pregnant at 16 and on welfare like she did. Her mother never finished high school and her dad dropped out of college.
“She didn’t want us to follow in her footsteps and neither did my dad,” Atkins said.
The young scholar took note and forged her own path. Her first step was getting through Long Beach Millikan High School after the death of her father, who passed away a few days before her 16th birthday. Two teachers, Jason Wilson and Roberta Patterson looked after her, guiding her through college entrance forms, difficult courses and rough patches.
“In those first three days, I could tell she was the smartest student I ever had based on her writing,” said Wilson, who teaches AP English.
“She would read her (writing assignment) aloud and I thought ‘Wow, she’s as sharp as a diamond. She sees reality so well and is able to articulate it. You could tell she had an emotional capacity to talk about those things and that this meant something to her.”
Patterson said Atkins “had a heart for people” and a resilience few people possess.
“So many people when faced with challenges throw their hands up and give up,” Patterson said. “Not Avis. She never backed away from anything.”
After graduation, Atkins headed to Long Beach State, where her eyes were opened to even more possibilities. She got involved in SOAR, was Associated Students Inc. Senator for the College of Liberal Arts, organized Week of Welcome, established the Speaker Series and ran for ASI President, the first African American woman to do so. She lost the election by 22 votes.
Just because she lost the election, Atkins didn’t stop fighting. She joined the African American Student Union and organized protests on campus. She led rallies at the CSU Chancellor’s office when tuition hikes were proposed and never stopped speaking out.
“That’s when I realized advocating was something that was ingrained in me,” she said. “I guess it comes from being homeless and not having too many resources.”
Atkins said she found her calling in college.
“Long Beach State is the most transformative institution that I have been a part of, and I’ve been to Harvard and I’ve been to Columbia and all these other great institutions,” said Atkins, who worked briefly at UC Berkeley and University of Virginia.
“But it’s really Long Beach State that formed me into being who I am.”
And that is?
“I am an advocate. A capacity builder. I want to make sure folks who don’t have resources have those resources to live a full life,” she said. “That’s a mission that inspires everything I do, from my volunteer activities to my professional endeavors. I just want to see people overcome barriers. Not only overcome them, but thrive in their lives – no matter what their background is, no matter what their race or immigration status.”
To further her cause, Atkins has started a scholarship for homeless students at Long Beach State. She was encouraged to hear about the Student Emergency Invention and Wellness Program, which was started in 2016.
“I never knew how much of a demand there was because students stay silent, and I know how much I was impacted by my background when I was going through Long Beach State,” Atkins said.
“It’s about helping people break barriers, beat odds. So, if there’s any way I can support someone who is going through the things I went through, that’s what I want to do.”