Career Talk with Sydney, Manager of Student Learning and Experiences
First-year Fellow, Natalia Wang, sat down with their supervisor, Sydney Stewart, to discuss her career in social impact and education, graduate school, work-life balance, sources of inspiration, and more!
Table of Contents
How did you decide to pursue a career in the fields of social impact and education?
I think I’ve always known that I wanted to do work that was focused on social impact, but education wasn’t actually always what I knew that I wanted to do. That’s something that formed as an interest between my sophomore year summer and my junior year of college.
For undergrad, I went to Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA (which is different from Wesleyan!). I initially went in thinking I was going to go into law. At the time, I had a lot of stuff going on in my life that really made me question how power manifests in society on individual and systemic levels. I also really wanted to study civil rights law because growing up as a young Black girl in South Carolina who’s African-American, I always had a real affinity for Black history, culture and activism. My mom was very intentional about raising me in the way of understanding who I am as a Black person and the kind of legacy and heritage that comes by virtue of being Black. We’d watch a lot of Black documentaries together, read books about Black lives, go to Black history museums, and learn about Black cultural contributions like the Dance Theater of Harlem and Alvin Ailey. From all of that, I saw how our people have had an influence on life and culture in the United States and beyond.
Wellesley has this interdisciplinary major called Peace and Justice Studies, which allowed me to explore all of the questions that I had, and I loved it. The courses focused on dissecting conflict, understanding how it can exist at multiple scales of society, and how to get to the root causes of conflict to understand how can you actually undo it. Those classes were my first entry point to really thinking about social impact.
Then the summer after my sophomore year, I did a service-learning internship working in a homeless shelter. I worked on a research project in a vocational rehabilitation program called the Moving Ahead Program, where I really had to sit with data and saw trends that changed the way I thought about education. For many of the program participants, the traditional educational system wasn’t working for a lot of reasons. Hearing their experiences with education, which were very different than my own, made me question: what was education not doing for people? How could I fit into the space in creating better outcomes? I actually ended up falling in love with the education department at Wellesley, which led me to do another internship the summer after my junior year in Washington DC at the National Urban League. They organize for Black communities by lobbying on Capitol Hill and create job programs in order to create economic parity for Black folks. The combination of these internships and my Peace and Justice studies major led me on pathways to thinking about how I could make a difference for the Black community. How can I ensure that the community is thriving? On a larger scale, how could I create freedom for people?
There are more things that came after which helped me decide that education was the way forward. It’s something that I never imagined myself doing when I first started at Wellesley. I don’t think I had as much respect for the profession of teaching as I do now, and also for the field of education, because I think the larger society tends to not value educators enough. But when I saw how powerful education can be for changing minds, changing hearts, and sometimes changing structures, I saw that as the entry point to affecting change based on all of my interests.
Why did you choose to go to graduate school? How did the degree serve you?
Last year, I went to Harvard Graduate School of Education and received a master’s degree in human development and education.
One of the biggest challenges for me was understanding when it was time to leave my job to go to graduate school. I chose based upon my feelings that I mentioned earlier of stagnation. There’s a certain point when you feel like you’re limited, where you have to ask yourself, do I stay? And if I stay, how can I begin to feel like I’m making productive progress for my career? Or, on the other hand, do I go? And if I go, where do I go? How do I inform people of what that process is going to look like for me? How do I respectfully transition out? That last part was really important to me.
I have a lot of conflicting opinions about whether or not you need a degree to get where you want to go in the world. There’s definitely something that Harvard and a master’s degree gave me. Harvard has a reputation as a fancy institution. When you tell someone that you went to Harvard, they’re immediately going to have a thought about who you are as a person. As a Black woman, I’m going to say that people do treat other people differently, especially people of color, especially people who are from gendered minority backgrounds, because of their degree. I think that if I were a Black woman who was just in space trying to say like, I’ve worked for three years at a nonprofit in an entry level role, let me do work, I don’t know that I would have the managerial position I have at a museum today.
At the same time, I don’t think the degree is necessary. While I was at Harvard, I worked as an afterschool kindergarten teacher at Cambridge Community Center. It was something I tacked on top of my studies and was probably the most valuable experience of my time in graduate school. I found that there were so many knowledges that those people who worked in education had by virtue of dedicating themselves and their lives to youth work. What I took away from this experience was that I could be getting all of the credentials at Harvard and learning all of the theory that I want to learn, but at the end of the day the best experience that you can get comes through actually being in those situations and grounding yourself in the practice. So that’s what I was navigating when considering graduate school, even before applying to this position.
How would you describe your work-life balance? How long did it take you to find that balance?
I think the way that I navigate work-life balance, or something I’ve been thinking about more in relation to this, is like how do I ensure that I have structure in my life outside of work? What I mean by that is having reasons to leave at the end of the day that I’m looking forward to, even when I’m really in busy mode. I try to think about how do I create those things for myself that are personal commitments that ensure that I’m getting the space and time that I need to sort of be a human?
I do have a lot of that. I’ve seen really, really unsustainable practices that I feel are less common in the nonprofit space. It’s not always perfect, though, and it’s definitely something I’m still learning how to do.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at work?
In my time off, one of the things I love doing is watching YouTube. That’s my truth! I love watching like HGTV and Apartment Therapy which have amazing videos about interior design and living on a budget in different parts of New York City. I really enjoy watching that content and seeing how people express themselves through their homes.
Another thing I really love to do is get my nails done. I live on a block that has a salon and it’s a huge form of self-care for me. Like, as superficial as it sounds, I think sometimes materialism can important. It’s also a form of expressing my femininity. It’s more than just the aesthetic, though. The process is rooted in care, where like someone will give you a massage, they will exfoliate your skin – I’m caring for myself, I’m loving myself. I’m doing the thing that I need to do in order to feel at my best.
I also really enjoy food. I like to experience New York City through food so I’ve gone on a lot of adventures for the purpose of eating food here. I really like eating in Jackson Heights. It’s my favorite. Like, I can’t wait to bring my friends to Jackson Heights when they come visit me. I also love eating in Manhattan Chinatown, too. There are two places I’m going to recommend to people – Nom Wah for dim sum in Chinatown, and Bhanchha Ghar in Jackson Heights which sells amazing momo. I feel like there’s just like so much value to food culture in our city. There’s so much like history, heritage, being infused. Food is just my happy place.
What accomplishments, career or otherwise, are you most proud of?
I’m proud that I made it out of graduate school – I worked really hard! I’m grateful that I worked as an after-school kindergarten teacher during that time too. I’m grateful that I fostered really strong relationships with the students I taught and their families so that when I go back to Cambridge, they’re like always willing and ready to be like “Hi Miss Sydney!!” That is a point of pride for me.
I’m proud I got this job. I feel really proud that I get to do work that aligns with my values and feels aligned with what I studied.
I’m proud that I get to supervise people and like in the moments when people give me words of affirmation. It means a lot because sometimes I can forget that I add value to people’s lives. Not because I think that I’m not a valuable person, but sometimes you can just forget the impact that your work makes, so it’s important to take a step back and recognize that.
How and where do you find inspiration for your work? What source(s) of inspiration have been on your mind recently?
Honestly, over the weekend and even this morning I was thinking about the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis by 5 Black police officers. It’s horrific. I watched a little bit of a clip and I couldn’t handle it. I’ve also been thinking ahead to Black History Month and how we will be teaching sections of the Activist New York exhibit about Black history to students. It’s important to me to consider how to teach that piece with a high level of care and to do it in a way that is humanizing of the people who have had their lives lost due to police violence, general anti-Black violence by other civilians, and the people who have been deeply impacted by anti-Black racism and white supremacy.
To start answering this question, I referenced this book, Rethinking Ethnic Studies, which was introduced to me by a former co-worker Ken Garcia-Gonzalez. One of the reasons I came to this book was because there is a chapter called “Happening Yesterday, Happened Tomorrow: Teaching the Ongoing Murders of Black Men.” I chose to start there today because in this moment where Tyre Nichols is dead, I need to know how to think and teach about this well for all age groups. Because what we would do for kindergarteners, for example, would not be as much as we would for 7thgraders, who can hold and grapple with more information. So, I think there’s inspiration in the ways that people have and continue to think and teach carefully and critically about everything that happens in the world.
I have also been thinking about a course I took called Educating to Transform Society. In that class we specifically learned about the formula of “praxis = reflection + action.” One of the things that I committed to myself coming out of that course was that I would live into both because I feel like historically, I’ve been a big reflector, but I’ve not done as much action. I see my current role as an opportunity to think more about my responsibility to act and how I can use my job and the platform that comes with it to do work that is action oriented.
I find inspiration from talking to partners for the Hidden Voices project and just seeing how phenomenal the work and education they’re doing is. I find inspiration from the book Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown and how much thought and care she puts into her work as a facilitator and as an organizer to change social structures and systems. I’m sitting with all of these things and seeing them as a tool for our framework for the educational work we do here.
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