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York College Student Fought Poverty to Give Herself and Son a New Life

June 30, 2021
A Criminal Justice student reading her son a book in front of a York College of PA sign

Sherrell “China” Robinson ’22 had days when there wasn’t enough food in the house to feed herself, but she pushed past her struggles to rewrite her story.

Sherrell “China” Robinson ’22 has stood in the snow and the rain, sometimes dripping wet and freezing, waiting for the doors of the Academic Support Center at York College of Pennsylvania to unlock each morning.

Barb Zmolek, Director of the Center, eventually noticed. One day, while sharing snacks with the student, Zmolek mentioned that the Humanities Center was open 24-hours a day, so nobody had to stand out in the weather.

Robinson cried. It was a sense of relief for the tired and hungry single mother. Very few people ever noticed the struggles she’s experienced the past few years, but for those who have, Robinson can’t thank them enough.

“No one has to ask the right questions or make the conversation,” Robinson says. “But, for the professors in my life who do, they have changed my life.”

Taking the chance on herself

Robinson was living in North Philadelphia when the crime in her neighborhood got to be too much. She didn’t want her young son, Naheem, to grow up watching people taken to the nearby hospital with gunshot wounds.

She connected with a friend she’d met through the Army Reserve who was living in York County, and she decided to pack her bags and move. It was 2018. Her son was less than a year old. Her first stop was in nearby Mount Joy, where her mother was living. She was told she could stay for a month, but then she better figure out what she was doing with her life.

For Robinson, the answer seemed obvious: She was going to college.

“A lot of people questioned my choice to go back to school,” she says. “They told me I needed to just go out and get a job. I needed to support my son.”

But Robinson felt she needed a degree to really change the course of her life. She found a job at a local warehouse, served in the Army Reserve on the weekends, and enrolled at York College. It was a start, she says, but it was not going to be easy.

A worthy challenge

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Robinson would spend her days at York College taking classes. She enrolled in the Criminal Justice program, with her heart set on someday opening a nonprofit that would help teens find their own path to secondary education.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she worked at a warehouse, while filling Saturdays and Sundays with Army Reserve duties, sometimes taking extra training and classes through the military so she could earn more income. She also had side hustles selling food platters and doing hair.

Every morning, she walked her son the two miles from her apartment to his daycare and then walked to campus. She didn’t have money for the bus. Some days, she didn’t have enough food in the house to feed herself.

When her classes were over, Robinson would sprint two miles, with her heavy backpack, to pick her son up before daycare closed. She tried to think of it as staying in shape, but it soon caused her back pain.

At the same time, Robinson was going through some domestic issues. Through tears, she speaks about Pete Leasure, Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, who noticed and helped her leave the relationship.

“People never knew I was going through that,” she says. “They don’t always take the time to notice. It’s really important that there are some who do.”

‘I’m pushing through’

Robinson says she doesn’t like hypocrites. That’s why she’s made Dean’s List every semester. That way, she can tell her son that he needs to go to college and make Dean’s List. It won’t make her a hypocrite, because she’s already done it. Even though her parents were there if she needed them, she wanted to do it on her own.

“I can tell people I did this,” she says. “I’m kind of happy my parents never handed me anything. No one helped me buy a textbook. I am proud of the role model I’ve become for my son.”

The recognition of Robinson’s efforts came this past year in the form of the Academic Senate’s Khanna Scholarship. Robinson cried when she received it. The funds are a sigh of relief to a woman who still keeps busy, working her many jobs and showing up for class. The recognition is thanks to the professors who took notice, she says, not just of her struggles—but of her triumphs.

“School is one of the most difficult, annoying things I’ve ever done,” she says. “But, I’m doing it. I’m pushing through. I’m not backing down. I’m changing my life for the better.”