Rachelle Aekins remembers attending the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund awards dinner as a middle school student and being inspired by how accomplished the high school students were.
When she herself was awarded the scholarship in the fall of 2010 as a Waterford High School senior, she spoke at the awards at dinner about how excited she was to continue her education in engineering and hoped to give back to her community, just as the organization had given to her.
Today, Aekins, 28, is helping the next generation of students as Vice President of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund Board of Trustees and is working in the medical device manufacturing industry.
“Overall, I truly enjoy helping people,” said Aekins, a quality manager at the company Flex.
Aekins, who lives in Middletown and is engaged to be married this summer, recently got promoted at Flex from quality engineer to quality manager. She leads a team of ten quality engineers and they work with customers to develop plastics for molded components used in medical devices.
As a student at Waterford High School, Aekins enjoyed sports — she was captain of the cross country and track teams in her senior year — and excelled in her math and science classes.
She studied biomedical engineering at the University of Connecticut, where she conducted sickle cell research. Through UConn Health, she researched regenerative engineering to try to create cartilage from stem cells.
“I always just truly enjoyed innovative and next-level activities,” she said.
While the biomedical engineering classes weren’t always easy, she kept it in the back of her mind that she had a support system from the scholarship organization and a network of scholars over the years, and it made her want to continue to succeed.
After the University of Connecticut, Aekins worked as a quality assurance specialist at Carwild Corporation, a medical manufacturing company in New London and then started working at Flex.
At Flex, she focuses on new products as well.
“Any new innovations that are coming up into the market, I’m working with customers to help create products to that current drawing or specification,” she said.
When she sees how people — for example, some family members with diabetes — are using devices made from one of Flex’s branches, she feels a sense of pride that the company is helping people and creating innovations to make their lives easier.
Aekins drew inspiration for her career from her parents. Aekins’ father is an electrical engineer, and, at the time when Aekins was deciding her career path, she was volunteering with her mother who was working at a Parkinson’s disease research company.
Aekins was motivated to not only give back through her career but also through the trust fund scholarship program, which allowed her to graduate college without any loans.
She started volunteering with the program after college and working with current board member Andrea Ackerman, who also serves on the Groton Board of Education, to help students with their speeches for the awards dinner. She became vice president of the scholarship program’s Board of Trustees last year.
Aekins said it recently came up during diversity training at work how she was the only African-American manger at her site, and she said it was interesting to be one of the first even in these times.
She also remembers being the only Black female in classes at Waterford High School, and it was isolating at times. Sometimes students would say things or make jokes, such as “Where did Rachelle go?” when the teacher turned the lights off because, Aekins said, supposedly she’s “too dark to see once the lights are off.”
Even today, she speaks with high school students who often feel isolated in their high-level classes, and there is still a low percentage of females, let alone Black females, in engineering or science courses and the STEM field, she said.
“I know it still goes on because these students still tell me, and I think sometimes it’s why they struggle and have to find motivation elsewhere,” she said.
She found support from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund and the scholars from schools across the region, such as Fitch High School, Norwich Free Academy and New London High School.
“It was nice to feel connected to those students and those schools, and I know I’ve seen throughout the years, a lot of the students that win the scholarship, they all stay connected through the rest of their high school and college careers and even past that,” she said.
She wants to show that same support to the students today.
Her message for young people is that education, she feels, is the key to success in life.
“Even if they still feel sort of segregated or a little bit isolated in their studies coming through school, as long as you try to work to get your education and move through life, nobody can take that from them,” she said.