Pharmacy's youngest grad is ready to make a difference

May 17, 2022
College of Pharmacy graduate Kira Adkins. Photo by Kira Anderson
College of Pharmacy graduate Kira Adkins. Photo by Kiya Anderson

While most of Kira Adkins’ new classmates in the MUSC College of Pharmacy in the fall of 2018 were learning each other’s names and backgrounds, they all seemed to know something about her already. After all, she had been featured in local media as the girl who was accepted to pharmacy school at the age of 16.

But even if they knew her story, they didn’t know her. Adkins remembers socializing with other new students around a table during orientation week when one brought up “that girl who got in, and she’s only 16.” Curious to hear the gossip, Adkins quietly listened. Luckily, the other students’ reactions were overwhelmingly positive – mostly amazement at her accomplishment. She then revealed herself as “that girl.”

“They were like, ‘What?! No way! We expected you – I don’t know – to look different,’” Adkins said. “And I was like, ‘Look different how? Who did you expect?’ And they were like, ‘I don’t know. Somebody nerdy.’”

“So I guess they were surprised,” Adkins said, laughing at the memory. 

From the youngest accepted applicant at the College of Pharmacy, Adkins now becomes the youngest graduate at the age of 21. It’s an age when most college students – including her former classmates from Academic Magnet High School – are either getting ready to begin their careers or to apply to graduate schools to study medicine, law, business, or – of course – pharmacy. 

Adkins bypassed the undergraduate years by earning college credits through Advanced Placement classes in high school and courses at Trident Technical College and Greenville Technical College. She had decided early on that she wanted to be a pharmacist, and so she began by choosing courses with an eye toward fulfilling her prerequisites. 

“Then I started to get on a roll, and I thought, ‘This is manageable.’ So I just started adding more classes, started trying to do the sciences,” she said. 

Her parents, Randy and Sherlonda Adkins, are immensely proud of her. But those years of doubling up on high school and college coursework weren’t easy, and they tried to make space for her to ease off the pressure. 

“There were definitely difficult times, of course, because it was a lot – being in college and high school,” Randy Adkins said. “Anytime she had those times, we always made it clear she could step away if she wanted to. Just because you have a plan doesn’t mean you have to put everything into it and move forward.”

But Adkins was always able to regroup, refresh and keep going, her father said. 

“We actually had a conversation about that a few weeks ago, about remembering those moments, because those moments will help you in your future. Life doesn’t always pan out perfectly. This ended up panning out very well, but it was difficult along the way,” he added. 

Kira Adkins and her family pose outside on a grassy lawn. From left to right: Kira's brother Dyran, her father Randy, her sister Kayla and her mother Sherlonda. 
Kira Adkins, far right, with her family. From left: brother Dyran, father Randy, sister Kayla and mother Sherlonda. Photo provided

Kira Adkins’ interest in a health care career began when, at the age of 13, her parents invited her to accompany them on a mission trip to Honduras. In addition to working as a software consultant, her father is also an ordained minister, and her mother is a physician assistant. Back home in South Carolina, Adkins joined the SCRUBS program at Roper St. Francis Health Care for middle and high school students interested in health care careers. 

It quickly became obvious, she said, that she didn’t want anything to do with a career that involved blood and gore. And as she began to learn about pharmacy, she also began to notice how accessible pharmacists are. Around practically every corner there’s a CVS, a Walgreens, a Walmart or a grocery store – and they all have pharmacists. 

She noted that pharmacists are considered among the most trustworthy professions, and she began to see how other health care providers relied on them. Even so, she said, it wasn’t until she got to pharmacy school and began rotations that she truly began to understand the breadth of the field. 

Rotations are meant to give students experience in a variety of settings, and Adkins has gotten that. She’s worked in a long-term care facility, ambulatory clinics, community pharmacies and hospital pharmacies. In each setting, she’s learned something about herself and about pharmacy. 

Working at a pharmacy embedded within a Fetter Health clinic, which primarily serves minority and underserved communities, drove home the significance of being a Black woman in the profession. Study after study has shown the importance of health care providers looking like the communities they serve, yet, nationally, only about 5% of pharmacists are Black.

Dr. Erica Hanesworth with College of Pharmacy graduate Kira Adkins. Both are wearing masks to protect against COVID and white coats.  
Kira Adkins with Dr. Erica Hanesworth. Hanesworth is an MUSC College of Pharmacy graduate, a past president of the National Pharmaceutical Association and a role model for Adkins. Photo provided

Adkins recalls one instance when her preceptor, or trainer, pointed out that the whole time the patient had been answering his questions, she had been looking at Adkins. 

“She was looking at you because she trusted you,” her preceptor told her. 

“That’s really when I started to realize how I, as a young Black female provider, can play into health care,” Adkins said. “I needed that rotation to really see that.”

Although she enjoyed forming relationships with patients in the ambulatory and community settings, her rotations showed her that she prefers to work in an acute care setting. 

“In the acute care setting, you have no idea what you’re going to come across. Every single day I walked in, and I was like, ‘OK, what did we get overnight?’” she said. 

She also liked that pharmacists were fully embedded members of the care team, not just an afterthought. A pharmacist was part of rounds each day, and for almost every patient, the doctors would consult the pharmacist about the best medication, the proper dosage and any possible interactions. 

“They need a pharmacist on rounds, and I didn’t really realize that until I was there,” Adkins said. 

She had a similar experience at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, where the pharmacists would be on rounds and had to carefully interpret labs to make recommendations, since many of the patients were intubated or sedated and couldn’t speak for themselves. 

At the VA, she said, her preceptor was especially challenging – in a good way. He told her he was going to treat her the same as a resident – someone who’s already graduated from pharmacy school – and assigned her projects as well as patients. 

“During the time, I was like, ‘This guy is crazy. He’s expecting me to do all this stuff, and I don’t know if I can do it.’ But at the end of it, I was like ‘OK, I needed that.’ Because I was able to do it all,” she said. “So that showed me I can juggle having patients but also doing longitudinal projects, also educating the team. It showed me that I can educate other health care providers and communicate with them.”

All of Adkins’ fourth-year rotations were in the Charleston area, which is somewhat unusual. Originally she planned to do some “away” rotations – after all, this is the student who organized three classmates to find rotations in Hawaii after their first year so they could live in Hawaii for a month – but COVID had already canceled her second-year rotation in New York City, forcing her to scramble for a replacement, and she didn’t want to go through that again. 

Happily, by the time she got to her fourth-year rotations, all save one were in person. 

Adkins, who describes herself as a social butterfly, is already getting to know the people she’ll be spending the next year with. She’ll be a resident at Prisma Health, where she’ll do acute care rotations and narrow down her interests. Right now, she’s interested in pediatrics, critical care and psychiatry, and she hopes the residency will show her which is the career path for her – or even show her a career path that she hasn’t yet considered. 

“I love the idea of keeping your mind open because you don’t know what you don’t know. Like psychiatry – I never would have known I was interested in that, and I just did that rotation in March. It was not on my radar until I did the rotation,” she said. 

As she prepares to graduate, Adkins acknowledges the village that has helped her to get to where she is – starting with her family and growing to include her professors, the pharmacists at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, with whom she’s worked since her first year, and many more.

“I couldn’t have done it by myself. I give a lot of credit to my parents. They’re always here for me, always supporting me. Also my siblings – yes, they are younger, but they’re a big part of my support system as well,” she said. 

Randy Adkins said their church family, where Adkins has learned to accept support when she’s needed it and to support others in turn, has been instrumental. And he and his wife are eager to see what their daughter does next. 

“We know she’s going to do phenomenal things.”