Smoothing the Stair

Don’t you set down on the steps ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

-Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes


To borrow language from Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son, life as a Penn State graduate employee “ain’t been no crystal stair.” As a black, gay, first-generation PhD student enrolled in a predominantly white institution, I have encountered both the general hardships experienced by most (if not all) graduate employees as well as specific barriers brought on by my race and sexuality. If it were not for the support and sense of solidarity I have drawn from my close friends and family, I would have failed.

My training in sociology makes me fully aware of the power of a supportive network in helping individuals succeed. I am also aware that for many graduate employees of color in a predominantly white institution, these networks may simply not exist. Indeed, for all five years of my enrollment, I have been the only black male graduate employee in the sociology department. Feelings of isolation and loneliness began to take their toll on my mental and physical health early on in my career here. Racially fueled abuses, slights, and microaggressions committed by people with significantly more power than me filled me with despair and caused me to question my very self-worth.  There were times when I felt like leaving Penn State without the coveted PhD and returning home to a disappointed mother. Fortunately, I was able to forge relationships with other students of color across the university, including close bonds with the three black women in my department. With them, I felt empowered. By no longer feeling alone, I was able to face the challenges of graduate school head-on.

As rough and splinter-filled as the “stair” that is graduate school has been for me, my story has a happy ending. Upon graduating this August, I will begin my career as a tenure-track professor of sociology at Missouri State University. In a way, you could say that I was successful in spite of the roadblocks and obstacles placed in front of me. I relied on a close network of trusted mentors, friends, and family who helped me navigate the often-times racist and unsupportive environment of my department. If it weren’t for them, there quite literally wouldn’t be a me.

So why am I pushing so hard for a graduate employee union? Why am I diverting precious time from writing my dissertation to speak out on behalf of the Coalition of Graduate Employees and their mission of graduate employee advocacy and unionization? Why don’t I simply lay low and bide my time until I move on to Missouri State? The answers to these questions are simple: I believe that the success of graduate students of color at predominantly white institutions relies on the lessening of the power differential between university administration and graduate employees.  With a union that emphasizes emphasizes empathy and solidarity, graduate employees of color will find it easier to have their issues addressed and thrive in this academic environment. I don’t want future students to have to go through what I went through. I want them to come to a university where students stand together in solidarity.

Though the splinter-filled stair to the PhD will never be crystal, it is my strong belief that a graduate employee union will help smooth it out.  

This blog post was contributed by Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, a PhD candidate and graduate employee in the Sociology Department.