28 Days of Black Excellence: Desiree Stepteau-Watson
Desiree Stepteau-Watson, interim chair and associate professor of social work at the University of Mississippi, has led a long career administering human and social service programs that address issues ranging from substance abuse and child welfare to maternal and child health. Her current research focuses on social support within the Black family, prisoner reentry and social work education. She has published many articles and has presented numerous papers and workshops across the country. Stepteau-Watson earned a master’s degree in 1992 and Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of Illinois Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. She holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Loyola University Chicago.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:33
Greetings, UIC family and friends. Welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. And it is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with some powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with some of UIC’s past students and faculty and staff who’ve paved the way and left a legacy. And so each day we have a new guest and I am excited to welcome and learn more about our guest. This is Dr. Desiree Stepteau-Watson. She’s a double alumni from UIC, both in ’92 with her master’s in social work, and then her Ph.D. in 2003. And so, Dr. Stepteau-Watson I know you’ve been up to a lot since you left UIC. And so just tell us what you’ve been up to, please?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 1:30
Well, actually, yes, a lot. So I am currently the interim chair of social work at the University of Mississippi. And I’ve been a professor actually since I graduated in ’03. I had my first teaching job at Jackson State University, starting out in ’03 and since then I’ve been teaching and doing program administration since that time.
Aisha El-Amin 2:04
Wow. So what, so Memphis is your, is where you’re at now? Is, is Memphis your home? Like where you’re from? Or are you?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 2:12
No, I am a Chicagoan through and through.
Aisha El-Amin 2:15
All right, come on tell me. Tell about that. [Laughter]
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 2:19
The Southside of Chicago.
Aisha El-Amin 2:20
All right, so now we besties because…
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 2:23
Aisha El-Amin 2:24
Southside it is. What high school did you go to?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 2:27
I went to Unity High School, so it no longer exists. But it was it was formerly Mercy High School and then two schools merged together — Mercy and Loretto — and it became Unity High School.
Aisha El-Amin 2:42
Oh, wow. And where was that located? I had never heard of Unity High School.
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 2:45
Yeah, it was on 81st and Prairie.
Aisha El-Amin 2:48
Oh, okay. So I’m Southside Bronzeville area. It’s called Bronzeville now of course, it was The Low End back then, right? So now you’ve been to a lot of things. And as you look back as a double alumni from UIC, what are some of the your fondest memories of kind of being in that space? And what did that, you know, and I know even from your time in ’92 to your time in ’03 things changed, right, at the university. Talk to us about some of that history and some of those changes?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 3:17
Yeah, well, one thing that really didn’t change for me at Jane Addams, which is the College of Social Work there at UIC, one thing that didn’t change was, and the thing that really stands out for me, is how invested the professors were in our education. And so, I really, I’ve really taken that with me. And just remember that all the way from, you know, professors at the end of the semester inviting us to their homes to celebrate, that was true in the master’s program and in the doctoral program. They were really invested in our learning, really invested in developing relationships with us as students, and what I’ve found invested in our development even as alumni. And so I tried to take that same model into into my relationships with my own students.
Aisha El-Amin 4:22
Wow, that’s, that’s a great legacy to carry on. One that we know makes a difference between being able to get out successfully with your degree in hand and not. And so, so thank you for bringing it to the forefront of my mind. Now when you, with every journey that we have, we have challenges, right? And triumphs. Can you kind of talk a little bit about your journey as other students that look like you want to experience some of the same things at UIC that you may have experienced? How did, what did that look like? What were some challenges and triumphs that you recall?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 4:57
Well, the triumph particularly was finishing the Ph.D. [Laughter] That was my most important triumph and really set the stage for the next chapter of my life. It is not, it’s not an easy journey. And the thing that happens, I think with, with the, well, probably with our graduate education, compared to undergraduate is that life happens in the midst of, in the midst of that, that journey. And so you really have to, you really have to have a sense of completing — completion, starting something and finishing it — because it’s really easy to kind of get derailed when life events happen. Deaths, births, I experienced both while I was a doctoral student. So those kinds of things present challenges. And I guess for Black students in particular, when we may not have, some of us may not have the kind of supports that other students may have, we may be more susceptible to not completing and not finishing.
Aisha El-Amin 6:34
So, what pulled you through? I mean, that’s, that’s a lot to shoulder, right? Losing someone, and then bringing some, bringing in life, right? While being in a Ph.D. program, which we already know, is taxing on every part of your being.
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 6:50
Aisha El-Amin 6:51
Yes, so how did you, how did you do it? What did you do?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 6:59
I made the decision toward the end that I had invested so much into this, financially, emotionally, physically. And also, made my family sacrifice in terms of my time, my availability. I made the decision that there was no way that I was not going, that all of that sacrifice would have been in vein. And so that’s really what pushed me through, was almost like, you put so much into this you cannot, you cannot not finish. And so, that just propelled me to move on, because there was a time when I wavered, and it’s like, do I really, do I really have what it takes to get through this? And the thought of the financial commitment, the emotional and time commitment that I had already invested to not have the degree at the end… that would have… I don’t know if I would have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t completed it.
Aisha El-Amin 8:16
No, that’s powerful. And I think the the statement you just made, I want to I want to highlight that you didn’t know if, if you could do this, right? I think we have that that’s the experience of many Black students at UIC and otherwise. And so as a person who was able to get through and to make it, what advice would you give? Even if you were talking to your former self? What would you give as a piece of advice to help push you across that finish line?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 8:49
Definitely to investigate all possible resources. I don’t, I don’t know that I did that as well as I, as I should have. In terms of financial support, in terms of resources that might be available within the university, I just kind of propelled myself through it. And I don’t think I took advantage as much as I could have of supports that were available to me. So definitely anybody who’s considering or who’s in that process now, find out as much as you can about what’s available out there to provide support.
Aisha El-Amin 9:36
That’s, that’s really sage advice. And you said that you were teaching, you had been teaching even before you received your Ph.D., right?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 9:45
Yeah, I taught. I was an adjunct instructor at DePaul. And then of course, I was a teaching assistant while I was there in the program at UIC.
Aisha El-Amin 9:57
So how would you, would you recommend that others do that? How did that benefit you and your trajectory? As folks that are currently in their master’s program or in their Ph.D. program, thinking about what are my next steps? And now you are in, in that space and so would you advise them to also follow that path? Or would you say do something a little bit different?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 10:20
No, I think anytime you can you get the opportunity to have teaching experiences, it’s valuable. Particularly for those who are interested in moving into the academy, anytime you have the opportunity to be responsible for course delivery, take advantage of that, and also take advantage of any mentoring opportunities that are available. People who are teaching now who can provide insight and support. I think that’s really important, because often times in our doctoral programs, we don’t. That’s not kind of built into the curriculum, although it should be. But traditionally, it’s not. And so we don’t get that when we’re studying the various subjects that we’re studying, whether it’s social work, or anthropology, or whatever it is. Typically, they don’t, courses on how to teach aren’t built into the curriculum. So anytime that you can get that chance to teach, I think we should take advantage of that.
Aisha El-Amin 11:37
Absolutely. And just to round off our questions and give you the gratitude for spending time with us and reflecting with us as part of the UIC legacy of Black excellence, you said mentorship and having a mentor. Can you just expound on that and what that might mean to folks and why they should be looking for mentorship?
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 12:03
Yeah, because it, it can smooth the journey a bit. If we have others in our circle, who have kind of been through the fire, have been through those experiences, and can kind of advise us about what the pitfalls might be, what to avoid, what to do. That can really, that can really be quite powerful. And I think that most of us are willing to, to mentor others because none of us, we all had those who gave us advice, who gave us support along the way and I think that most are willing to give back in that way.
Aisha El-Amin 12:59
Absolutely. And as people start contacting you, I’m just gonna [laughter]. You put it out there so [laughter]. But I think you’re absolutely right, we all stand on the shoulders of those before us, right? And we know that without folks that have paved the way that we couldn’t be where we are, and so I appreciate that. And I appreciate you and on behalf of UIC, we appreciate the things that you’re doing in the world and that UIC played a role in that. So thank you, thank you for your time. Thank you for your Black excellence in everything that you bring.
Desiree Stepteau-Watson 13:41
Well, thank you. Thank you for inviting me to do this. I give thanks to UIC for my foundation, and I’m really very grateful.
Tariq El-Amin 13:54
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.