Austin High senior turns challenge of dyslexia into motivation and inspires girls in STEM

May 19—An Austin High senior with dyslexia will graduate fourth in her class of 317 students Tuesday after years of turning her learning challenge into motivation.

Reagan Atkins — winner of various science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) awards, trombone section leader in the symphonic, marching and concert bands and earner of a dual enrollment short-term certificate from Calhoun Community College — will attend Auburn University in the fall to study industrial engineering.

"I am extremely proud," said Brenda Martinez Richardson who teaches Advanced Placement computer science at Austin High School. "Reagan has been a joy to have in the classroom, and seeing her blossom and do so well in competitions, share her experience with others, help recruit others and leave that legacy has just been amazing."

The achievement came after Atkins was diagnosed with dyslexia as an elementary student at Chestnut Grove. At first, she struggled and was frustrated. Then, with some practice, she said she used her dyslexia to her advantage and turned it into a strength that fueled her to push toward her passions.

"I really just want to help younger kids and inspire them to stay in STEM," Atkins said. "Especially younger girls or people with disabilities."

Atkins discovered her passion for STEM at an early age after her cousin helped her brother, Jacob, build a computer from scratch. As an elementary school student, Atkins was the only girl to join Chestnut Grove's robotics team.

"My teacher was like 'Are you sure you want to do this?'" Atkins said. "After I started going, more girls started participating."

As a mechanical engineer herself, Atkins' mother, Leigh Ellen, encouraged her daughter to pursue her love of science.

"Elementary school was frustrating," Leigh Ellen Atkins said. "Now they identify kids with dyslexia earlier."

The Associated Press reports Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are three states screening students for dyslexia as early as kindergarten. This gives teachers and parents more time to offer students support.

By high school, Reagan Atkins was using her technology skills to 3D print custom mutes for her whole trombone section. Mutes help alter the volume or sound of trombones.

COVID-19 cut her freshman year short and made most of her sophomore year virtual. Atkins came to school only for band and opted to take the rest of her classes online.

"It was not easy to do," Leigh Ellen said. "Especially when she had had a normal year the year before. It was very hard."

Reagan's favorite high school memory, she said, came from a freshman year band competition in Hartselle when Austin High played "The Greatest Showman." The crowd gave them a standing ovation, and the performance invigorated Atkins' love for band.

"At the band picnic, I was awarded a director award — basically being around and helping out," Atkins said. "I would say that's the thing I'm most proud of because they also had to add another one to it because they couldn't just choose one person."

A trombone player, Atkins became a section leader as a sophomore. She helped grow the trombones from eight her freshman year to 22 her senior year.

"I'm trying out for Auburn's marching band, and I already went down for A-Day and got to play one of their trombones in the stands with one of their members," Atkins said. "That was really exciting."

Additionally in high school, Atkins earned the National Center for Women and Information Technology award twice and placed third in both the Governor's App Challenge and Congressional App Challenge. Most recently, she won Student of the Year for the Calhoun Community College Chapter for the Alabama Youth Leadership Development Program. A slew of other recognitions decorate her five-page resume.

Martinez Richardson, Atkins' computer science teacher, met her four years ago at curriculum night.

"That first night she came in and she shook my hand, and she knew that she was going to be taking my classes," Martinez Richardson said. "She knew she was going to work it into her schedule however she could."

Martinez Richardson, who spent years working as an electrical engineer before pursuing teaching as a second career, has mentored Atkins and helped nurture her interest in engineering.

"It was great just seeing her always take the lead," Martinez Richardson said. "It was always her coming up to teachers asking for guidance and advice as she made these decisions going forward."

Atkins has chosen to study industrial engineering at Auburn because of her love for problem solving. Martinez Richardson believes she'll excel in college, just like she did in high school.

audrey.johnson@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2437.