"You Can't Be What You Don't See"
Black alumni from the 1960s to the 2010s recall the challenges and opportunities of their time on campus, and share their hopes for Penn State's future.
Originally from Chicago, Kyler Sherman-Wilkins ’15 MA, ’17 PhD Lib spent part of his youth in rural southern Illinois, so he felt prepared for the demographics he encountered in Happy Valley. He earned his master’s and doctorate at University Park, then left in 2017 for a job at Missouri State University, where he’s an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology.
Penn State’s one of the few places that has a dual Ph.D. in sociology and demography, and I thought it would be the best place for my training. The transition wasn’t that bad; I was used to being in predominantly white spaces. I was the only Black male grad student out of 60 or 70 people—there were three Black women, and me. Especially in grad school, there’s the whole idea of imposter syndrome, feeling like you don’t belong. You’re critiqued by largely white faculty, and you’re always second-guessing whether you’re good enough.
The only explicit thing I experienced was the pushback against calls to recruit more diverse students and faculty to the department. People were reluctant to have conversations. But the challenge is the implicit things, the microaggressions. There was a time I gave a lecture as a TA, and as part of the study guide, I gave the class a list of resources. I put my name on it, and the professor took issue with that: “Why is it so important for you to put your name on things?” In many ways, it’s easier dealing with explicit racism; you can point to it and say, “That person called me the n-word.” This felt covert, like not remembering your place.
I think as Black professors, we have these conversations in our heads constantly: If there’s an issue, how much of it is because I’m outspoken or strong-willed, and how much of it is because I’m Black? I’ve never been able to really sort through that. Whatever the intent, it’s still the reality that you feel you’re treated differently. And it doesn’t help when you’re the only Black man there.
Eventually some of the Black graduate students formed a group called “the Dashikis,” and we got together once a month to talk and support each other. I was concerned with issues facing undergraduates, too. I was involved with the LGBT students of color, and I got a lot of insights in that area. My family was very accepting when I came out, and I was struck by the disproportionate number of Black youths who were alienated from their families. It really opened my eyes to challenges at the intersection of being a person of color and LGBT.
My experience at Penn State has shown me how important it is to be an advocate for making predominantly white institutions safer for Black students. That’s the main reason I’m committed to staying at Missouri State. My job is to expose people who usually don’t think about diversity to start thinking about it. There’s a lot of fertile ground here for that. It would be easy to go to Chicago or an HBCU, but I feel like I’m needed here, and my experience at Penn State really solidified that.