Just persevere

Erika Wilson

Assistant Professor, School of Law

⇦ Go back

Erika Wilson has vivid memories of her parents hard at work. Her dad trained managers for Sears department stores, and her mom was a telephone operator in a big hotel. They both pulled long hours and took on extra responsibilities to try and move up.

But they were held back, both by racial prejudice and by a lack of college credentials.

“College just wasn’t accessible to them,” Wilson, now an assistant professor in the UNC School of Law, recalled. “Because of where they grew up, and the culture and history of that time, higher education really wasn’t an option.”

Witnessing their struggle gave Wilson a deep determination not only to earn a degree, but to use her education to make the world a fairer place. The seeds of her work a civil rights attorney and law professor were planted early.

“It really affected me, seeing my parents’ frustrations,” she recalled. “I could see firsthand what racial discrimination meant, and the fight it took to overcome it. That definitely shaped my career choices.”

The path from a working class household to a professorship in civil rights law wasn’t easy. At the University of Southern California, Wilson met classmates who seemed to navigate college effortlessly, with no sense of pressure or worry. Not having to stress about money allowed them to focus more fully on school.

“It’s an important part of the process, to get fully involved in college and make that the center of what you’re doing,” she said. “If you have to work or have family obligations, it makes it a lot more difficult to concentrate.”

Figuring out how to balance those competing priorities can be a major challenge for first-generation students. Wilson held down one or two jobs at a time while she was taking classes, something that limited her chance to get more involved in campus life. To this day, she regrets missing out on some of the extracurricular activities that define college for many students.

One of the biggest lessons she had to learn, Wilson recalled, is that professors and others were willing to help — if students take the time to ask.

“You’re not alone,” Wilson tells her students today. “There are people all around you who have made it through similar struggles, people who know where you’re coming from and really want you to succeed.” Finding the right resources means talking openly with professors, friends and administrators.

That’s true even in her law school classes, where students can feel an even greater sense of pressure to keep up. Wilson said that her own law school experience at the University of California, Los Angeles was the most challenging period of her life. She had to look hard to find mentors who could help guide her in such a complex world.

“No one in my family had a college degree or a professional degree, and they really couldn’t understand some of the challenges I was facing in law school,” Wilson said. “There was this sense of, ‘You’ve always done well in school, so how hard could this be?’”

There were times when she seriously considered quitting. But the encouragement of family and the connections she made with professors helped her persist.

The effort and long-term investment in education paid off for Wilson. Today, she teaches classes on public policy, school reform, and the vital fight to protect civil rights for all Americans. She wanted to make a difference for people like her parents, and that’s
exactly where her studies and work have led her.

“I always had a sense that I wanted to work with and fight for marginalized groups,” Wilson said. “The main thing is just perseverance. Even when it seems impossible or a waste of time, you’ll get to the other side.”

By Eric Johnson