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As Senior Global Marketing Manager at Medtronic and community leader working to address disparities in educational success between African-American and Caucasian children through a Bush Foundation Fellowship, Sylvia Bartley is without question one of Pollen’s most tenacious and inspiring members. At one point in her journey, Sylvia was told that as a black woman she would make a mockery of the education system by pursuing a Ph.D. in Neurophysiology. She answered her critics by doing.

Here is her story.

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Thirteen years ago a wired, 32-year-old Sylvia Bartley sat nervously in a makeshift reception area in one of her Ph.D. reviewers’ office at the University College of London. Her supervisor, who insisted on accompanying her, would offer no relief from her incessant worries — worries that were validated by the stories of those come and gone. For a phrase that literally means “with living voice,” the viva voce is to Ph.D. students what the boogeyman is to a frail six-year-old boy in X-Men pajamas when his mother calls for lights out: absolute terror. Sylvia told me about one student who started his viva voce at 9 a.m. He had a lunch break, came back, and finished at 5 p.m., only to get called back the next day for another three hours of volunteered torture. Afterwards he still had to make corrections. There were always corrections.

 

The silence in the waiting area was punctured by a request for Sylvia to enter the room.

She now came face-to-face with her boogeyman.

 

 

 

 

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Sylvia was born to a Jamaican father and Saint Lucian mother who met and married in London. Like many migrants who leave the knowns of life in their homeland, her mom and dad would each land in London with a luxuriant amount of unknowns and no money. Her dad would become a devoted postal worker, and her mom a sought-after seamstress who worked from home. “It wasn’t a lavish lifestyle. I remember putting cardboard in the holes of my shoes before heading to school. But my sisters and I never starved, and my mom would make all of our clothes.”

 

Her family settled into an all-white neighborhood in the suburbs, and the kids attended an all-white Catholic school. The girls in the Bartley home were always encouraged to do well in school. Her sisters excelled early in their studies, but Sylvia — a child with a quiet, reserved demeanor who sported burly glasses and identical outfits her mother sewed for all her siblings  — struggled to find her footing. “I was very inward thinking and always felt like I never fit in. I would study hard until all hours of the morning, and was still making D’s and E’s. When I did catch up to people in my class, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be there.”  

But Sylvia made effortless A’s in a chemistry class with a teacher who had disdain for her. “I didn’t like the chemistry teacher, and she didn’t like me,” she said laughing. “I decided I was going to show her, and I did well on my chemistry exam. Once she saw that, she encouraged me to do even better. At that point, I realized I could do it and I had potential.” This encounter would be emblematic of her new found relationship with science and its self-appointed “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

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There were trees that bear strange fruit, Billie Holiday famously sang in 1939. It was a criticism of America’s bloodstained history, and one an increasingly conscious 16-year-old Sylvia Bartley would discover in 1983. “‘Roots’ was the awakening. I went to an English Catholic school where 97 percent of the students were white. Nobody told me about slavery. I didn’t even learn about Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t discover these things until I watched ‘Roots.’ From that point on, everything was different. I was conscious of my color. I was conscious that things were different.” When it came time to select a college, Sylvia opted for a school with a large, black student body. “I had to take a two-hour train ride there and a two-hour train ride home, but I knew that I needed to be around black people — people who looked like me.”

 

Sylvia finished school with honors and a degree in pharmacology. She got married, had a son, and later got divorced. A beautiful daughter would later emerge from a subsequent relationship, as well as single parenthood. Bartley landed a job as a research technician at a renowned medical school. But what would serve as her floating device, as she prepared to be catapulted back into a sea of whiteness, would be her new understanding of self and an upbringing that taught her to focus and do things properly.

 

 

“I had to put up with a lot of crap because people told me I was black,” she says of her time as a research technician.

 

“In a very nice way, they would tell me that I was disadvantaged and life must be hard for me.” There was even a colleague — someone who could stunt double for Danny Devito in the movie, “Twins” — who gave the 6-foot-tall Sylvia death glares in an elevator because she stood up for herself in a handwritten letter to him after he uttered a racial epithet in the workplace commons.

Sylvia and I shook our heads at each other in a sort of spurious disbelief. We both knew she couldn’t make this up even if she tried. She breaks our moment to throw out a life jacket: “It all came down to naivety, not maliciousness or vindictiveness.”

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Sylvia worked at her job for 13 years. She couldn’t recall another black Ph.D. student in her faculty, which averaged at least four Ph.D. students a year.

 

When critics said Sylvia would be a “mockery to the education system” if she went to get her Ph.D., she responded by doing.

 

“Do what they say you cannot do, and do it well.”

 

It took Sylvia two weeks to decide to register for her Ph.D., even though her supervisor — a well-known scientist who reviewed Ph.D.s — offered to register and sponsor her thesis work. “To get my Bachelor of Science in pharmacology was big enough for me. I knew I could do that,” Bartley said. “In those two weeks — God is so strange — people were coming up to me crying about the difficulty they were having in getting sponsors. It was even a struggle for some folks to get registered. Here I am with this gift of registration with no fee and I’m wondering if I should do it.”

 

Doing “it” would be the ultimate test to Sylvia’s commitment. “My Ph.D. supervisor made me write that thing so many times. I had to stop working full-time. When I finally thought I had it, I would give it to him and he would give it back with every bloody word in red. Even the legends were red,” she said with a rehashed frustration. “I looked at him and I was going to cry. I just couldn’t do it anymore. At that point, he brought me into his office and showed me other theses — some that were bound and some that had already been submitted — and they had just as many red marks.” Three months later she would submit her thesis to her supervisor, and he was finally happy.   

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Everything seemed like it was moving incredibly slowly, as Sylvia and her supervisor entered the train on the way to her viva voce. “I remember it feeling like a journey to my death. When we finally arrived at the University College  London, I was shot to pieces but I couldn’t believe I was there. This was huge!”

 

“This is a little black girl who went to school with D’s and E’s. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I could be a doctor in neurophysiology.

 

Sylvia entered the room and was met by two examiners. One, a massive Scottish man, would stare at her before blurting out, “How ya doin’?” Sylvia’s nerves betrayed her in her reply, but this was her moment. “Sylvia, I understand that you are nervous, but this is not an examination,” he softly remarked. “This is a celebration of your work. You have passed. You got your Ph.D. We are just going to have a chat and complete the process.” An absolutely stunned Sylvia spent only 45 minutes in her viva voce — 15 of which were spent on answering questions about what’s next. She walked out of the room with not one correction.

 

“My supervisor and I had tears in our eyes.” Her “earth angel” turned to her and began disappearing, like angels often do: “Sylvia, I’m retiring now. I was ready to retire, but I wanted to get you through this. You got it, and I’m retiring.”

 

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When Sylvia returned to work the next day, the whole neurophysiology department was waiting with champagne — even Mr. Devito, who later penned a two-page, double-sided letter telling her of his utmost respect for her and that he knew she would do well in whatever she opted to do next. “I worked with these phenomenal, smart white people who told me I was underprivileged. It was a funny moment to be in.”

 

I ask Sylvia Bartley if she thinks she’s reached her peak.

 

“I don’t think I’ve started to do what I’m supposed to do. This is all in preparation of what I’m supposed to become,” she said. “I have to use what I’m given — my circumstance, and now my education — to better my community.”

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Contributors

Adaobi Okolue
Adaobi Okolue is a writer, strategist and visual storyteller who crafts stories that challenge the way we view ourselves and reveal the truths, brilliance and ideas of the people we choose not to see. She is also the founder and owner of Coloring Circles, a marketing studio in Minneapolis that works with organizations, small businesses, and creative entrepreneurs who empower people and community.
Lilli Carré
Lilli Carré is an interdisciplinary artist and illustrator currently living in Chicago. Her animated films have shown in festivals throughout the US and abroad, including the Sundance Film Festival, and she is the co-founder of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation. She has created several books of comics, most recently the short story collection, Heads or Tails, published by Fantagraphics, and her first children's book, Tippy and the Night Parade, published by Toon Books. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times, Best American Comics and Best American Nonrequired Reading, amongst other places. Solo exhibitions of her drawing, animation, and sculpture work were recently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Columbus Museum of Art in 2014. A new solo exhibition, The Pleasure of Getting Lost, is currently up at Western Exhibitions through October 18th.