Hometown: Waukesha/Mukwonago, WI
Current Location: Milwaukee, WI
Current Role: Teaching Assistant & Graduate Student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM)
Nominated By: Sarah Lipps
Reason for Nomination: Sydney is a shining star in many people’s lives. Of the things that stand out most about her, Sydney shows deep care for others and passion for the things that are most important to her—whether that be friends and loved ones, political movements, or her own education. Sydney is a strong, talented woman, who always seems to see the silver lining in the most challenging times.
A Short Bio.
For Sydney Gilbert, the past fourteen months have been some of the most consequential of her life. In May 2019, she graduated with majors in Art History and Creative Writing from Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. Later that month, she moved back home—to the Milwaukee suburbs—and started working as a tour guide at MillerCoors Brewery. Over the following months, Sydney discovered that she was pregnant, started her Master’s degree, continued working, and, in November, delivered a healthy baby boy: Wyatt Samuel, “the sweetest, kindest, most patient, smiley and silly baby she has ever known.”
Today, Sydney stays busy, working, pursuing her Art History Master’s at UWM, and trying to stay COVID-free. Most importantly, however, Sydney dedicates much of her time to mothering Wyatt—who, though by all accounts seems to sleep easy and require less maintenance than the average baby, still commands the love and care of his doting mother.
Not one to regret or complain, Sydney feels truly grateful to be living the life she is. Although the past year has been filled with its fair share of challenges, Sydney feels thankful for “clarity and direction” this time has afforded her. Like any 22-year-old—or, well, anyone—Sydney knows that she is on her own journey to self-discovery, a journey that she has become increasingly aware of recently. She writes, “I have dedicated so much of my life to helping family and friends find their paths [that] I never really stopped to fully figure out my own.” To this, she adds, “While a lot of who I want to be still revolves around helping others, it also includes self-care time that I have denied myself in the past.”
In undergrad, Sydney learned the value of self-care and, by that same logic, she also learned what happens she fails to care for her own needs. “I was the honor roll student that everyone saw me as, while behind closed doors I was drowning,” she reflects. Following her best friend and sister Sam’s death, which just two days before moving away to college, Sydney entered autopilot mode. And so, throughout her first year of college, Sydney ignored her grief. “I thought the best way to honor my sister’s memory was to push through and be the best student I could be. I knew she would want to see me succeed,” Sydney said. And, in the short term, on the surface level, I guess Sydney was right.
During Sydney’s freshman year, she achieved a 4.0 GPA…But then Sydney’s life began to unfold before her eyes. Obviously, denying the pain did little to remove its existence or mitigate its severity.
In Sydney’s words:
[When] I went home that summer and didn’t know who I was any more. I didn’t know how to interact or engage in the ways I used to. I could tell that I was purposefully trying to become my sister to keep her alive in my life and my parents’ world.
And because of this,
I started to lose myself and the next two years at Augie were extremely rough. My grades started slipping. I took more incompletes than I care to admit. I found myself exhausted by trying to keep up the charade that I was this honor roll student that everyone saw me as while behind closed doors I was drowning.
Now, to understand the true gravity of Sydney’s grief, you must also understand that Sam meant everything to Sydney. Sam was just one year older than Sydney, so Sam’s identity was inextricably intertwined with Sydney’s. “We were identified together. It was never just ‘Sam’ or ‘Sydney,” Sydney reflects. “It was always ‘Sam and Sydney.”
Through high school, Sam and Sydney bounced between their parents houses in western suburbs of Milwaukee. Since their parents lived far enough apart, the sisters had “two distinct friend groups—the friends [they] could hang out with at their mom’s and the friends they could hang out with at their dad’s.” Despite their varying social circles, however, Sam and Sydney had each other: they became each other’s constants. Wherever they went, whatever the situation entailed, Sydney knew that she could find comfort, joy, laughter, and love in her sister’s presence, and vice versa. They were two peas in a pod. “She was always my home,” Sydney remembers.
And then she was gone. Sam died in a tragic car accident. Just two days before Sydney moved into her freshman dorm…
A year later, Sydney entered a vortex for which she could see no escape, no light at the end of the tunnel. Much of life felt empty, the pain unbearable. It was hell. Nevertheless, she persisted—with help, of course. Sydney credits Augustana Art History professor Dr. Catherine Goebel with leading her through these rough waters. “No matter how many times I fell, she saw something in me and continually picked me up and helped put back the pieces. She showed me so much patience and grace,” Sydney said. Dr. Goebel even afforded her opportunities to “be a Whistler Scholar, study abroad, conduct graduate-level research, present conferences, and more.” Dr. Goebel was Sydney’s guiding force, a beacon, when Sydney needed one most. In bolded typeface, Sydney writes, “I am extremely grateful for her.”
Sydney Gilbert’s story—at least up to the present moment—is one of healing and rebirth. Today, Sydney still feels the visceral pangs of grief, but she has learned, and is still learning, how to cope and persist. In her son, in Wyatt, Sydney sees the hope and joy of new life. She sees a concrete and meaningful ways that she can positively shape pieces of this world and one little human’s entire world. In herself, Sydney also sees the possibility that life holds for her. At 23, Sydney will receive her Master’s in Art History and then begin the next step in her journey.
As Sydney moves forward, she hopes that time can be her canvas, and her life can be her paint and paintbrushes. Yet, if Sydney’s learned anything over the past five years, it’s that nothing should be taken for granted. Thus, she has already begun painting her masterpiece, and she is living it one stroke and one day at a time.
Q & A: The [Not So] Serious
BB: Hi Sydney! Thanks for taking time out of your busy life for me to get to know you better. I understand that you are studying Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Can you tell me a little bit about this program and what made you choose it?
SG: So, I chose UW-Milwaukee mostly because it is close to my family who mainly live in Waukesha, WI. After spending four years at Augie, I really missed my close-knit family. We do pretty much everything together and it has always been that way. When I was at Augie, I had to miss out on a lot of our impromptu family gatherings and, while I LOVED my time at Augie and wouldn’t trade it for the world, it made me sad to see my family build memories that I wasn’t a part of. So, moving back to the Milwaukee area was extremely important to me.
Additionally, UW-Milwaukee is paying my whole tuition and giving me a stipend. So how could I say no to that?
BB: When looking to grab a beer in Milwaukee, which brewery do you visit? And what is your favorite beer at that brewery?
SG: HAHA. As a tour guide for Miller Brewery, I have to say Miller Brewery is the best brewery experience. Truly though, I work with the kindest and funniest people. This has by far been my favorite job I’ve had just because I love the environment so much. I even choose to hang out with these people after work. They really have become my best friends and a second family.
Best beer to try is actually an “off menu” secret I will share. It is called the Blue Velvet. Take a regular Blue Moon Belgian White and mix it with a Crispin Original Hard Cider. Absolutely delicious.
Best on menu item, a classic Miller High Life (on draft, of course) or Leinenkugel’s Canoe Paddler. (Yes, Miller owns Leinenkugel’s. Since 1988.)
BB: What is your favorite art movement? Artist? Work? And why?
SG: I am a huge fan of the Baroque period. Specifically, Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. The dramatic lighting and rich colors all come together to create such an evocative scene. I could stand in front of their paintings forever. They are on these huge canvases that completely envelop you. Each artist painted with the distinct intention of drawing the audience into their work and making you feel like you’re involved in the action. Painting mostly biblical scenes, this is extremely important for those of faith looking at the images. Imagine being told these stories of Christianity call your life and then standing in front of a canvas that invites you into the story. All of a sudden, you can feel yourself standing before Jesus or the disciples and you are actively part of their narrative. That is a powerful feeling to be able to create.
Additionally, as a feminist, I love the work of Artemisia Gentileschi. At a young age, she was raped. Many scholars have since reduced her art as always being a response to that one interaction in her life. However, she is so much more than that. Just looking at her paintings you can see the intelligence and strength she had and a fearlessness and ferocity in her as she wasn’t afraid to let anyone know just how good she was at what she did. I am in crazy awe of her as a painter and as a woman.
BB: If you could design your own trail mix, what would you put in it?
SG: Trail mix is gross. I would put nothing but the M&Ms in it (:
BB: In what important ways do you see that you have grown since graduating college?
SG: Living in Milwaukee, I have grown so much over the last year. My independence has shot through the roof. I can go sit in a coffee shop alone without the fear of looking pathetic for not having friends to sit with. Additionally, while I believe I have always been a pretty understanding person, working as a teaching assistant has really shown me that we have no idea what is going on in other peoples’ lives, and if you have the chance to help them out where they need it, always help. It takes two seconds to be kind to someone else.
…Working as a teaching assistant has really shown me that we have no idea what is going on in other peoples’ lives, and if you have the chance to help them out where they need it, always help. It takes two seconds to be kind to someone else.
BB: Complete the following sentence. The world would be greater if everyone knew __________ [this artist’s] music.
SG: Needtobreathe. Absolutely my all-time favorite band. I have been in love with them since I was in middle school. They sing with genuity, kindness, and deep-rooted love for each other. I’ve been to several of their concerts, and they just have fun with one another on stage and with their audience. They are truly just grateful for where they are and are enjoying the road they are on.
I think the most important piece to their group though is their honesty. They have no fear mentioning which albums were not their best work and, typically, it is because they were not in the best place emotionally as a band. They weren’t synced like usual and they have absolutely no problem with admitting that truth. I think it is important that they show their fans that even when you are in a spotlight, like literally being on a stage in front of your fans, it is still okay to admit you make mistakes and are human. It is okay to admit that you don’t always get along and agree. It is okay to have faults and it is okay to laugh at those faults.
BB: What would you tell someone who does not understand the importance of studying the humanities, fields like Art History and Creative Writing?
SG: THE HUMANITIES ARE INTERDISCIPLINARY! Oh boy, I could go on a huge rant about this. I know Augie would say it all the time, but it really is important to recognize that the humanities are interdisciplinary. For example, you may not see a clear connection between art history and a medical profession. However, medical schools have admitted that they like to see students with art historical backgrounds because art history teaches you to look at small details and connect them to a bigger picture. You assess things like color, lighting, line, depth, texture, etc. to make a broad argument for artist intent or a scholarly reading of an image. Those skills translate to medicine because it teaches you to be detail oriented; to look closely at things that seem relatively unimportant but come together and bring clarity to the overall message. This is exactly what doctors have to do when looking at minor symptoms and translating them to various diseases/illnesses.
I will spare you more of a rant. Just know, all studies are important.
BB: If you could only enjoy one dessert for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
SG: Tiramisu. Delicious.
BB: Tell about a recent moment when you felt proud to be you. Why do you think you felt this way? And what does this moment say about you?
SG: This kinda comes attached to a crazy story. Basically, I had a baby. WHAT?! Crazy. I know. It happened in November—November 29th, 2019, to be exact. I had no idea I was pregnant, which is a whole other story, but I have a son named Wyatt Samuel. He is the absolute best. He is almost 7 months old now and is the sweetest, kindest, most patient, smiley and silly baby I have ever known. I constantly get told that he is adorable, which is true, and that no one has seen a baby who is as happy as he is. While most parents can share nightmare stories of their babies crying all the time, I do not share that experience as Wyatt will only cry for a couple seconds if he needs something but as soon as a bottle is in his hands, he goes back to smiling and laughing.
While at a friend’s house the other day, I had dinner with her family and her grandmother was there. I received the usual comments about Wyatt being the happiest and calmest baby she has ever met and she made sure to say she has met a lot of babies in her lifetime. However, then she said something different than the others. She looked at me and said, “You know, that says something about you as a mother, too. You’re doing a great job,” and I thought I was going to break down and cry right there. Sure, I have been told I am doing a good job before, but Wyatt’s temperament and success had never been directly attributed to me before that moment. I was extremely proud.
BB: If you could be a backup singer and dancer for any musical artist or band, historical or present, who would you choose? Why?
SG: Queen. Easily, I would choose Queen. But, you know, being a backup dancer for like Bach or Beethoven could be cool, too.
BB: Whether through your vocation, your relationships, or your passion projects, how would you like to change the world in the foreseeable future?
SG: I am hoping that, through my relationships and continual willingness to have conversations with people from all worlds, I can continue to grow my own personal empathy and show others through my own actions how empathy is vital to our community. With the continual development of use of social media platforms and the divisive nature of our politics and news outlets, I think we too often get caught in our own heads and our own ideas. We get so focused on self-preservation that we forget that this whole thing only works if we work together. One person cannot succeed alone. So, it is up to each individual to lift up who they can so we can continue to grow as a local community and national/international society.
BB: If you have tea or coffee with one historical figure, who would you choose? Why?
SG: There is this artist named Wayne White (he actually worked on the show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, but has a bunch of other art as well), and I would love to get coffee with him. He has a very interesting take on art that I agree with. Basically, that art should be fun. His documentary Beauty is Embarrassing was the first time my eyes were really opened to the art world that I loved and I started to question it. Why do so many people think art is pretentious? Why do so many artists/art historians want to save this attribution? Why are art museum’s silent? Why are ‘serious’ forms of art like Renaissance painting deemed more worthy and of higher skill than comic book art or modern art? I would love to pick his brain about how he views art and its role in our society.
BB: One interesting fact that people might not know about me is:
SG: Haha. Well, most people don’t know about the whole baby thing (:
My go to interesting fact is that I am a huge DIYer. Being an academic, most people don’t think that I would know how to fix things or would want to do “manual labor,” but I find it so fulfilling to be able to change my own oil or take a table I found on the side of the road and sand it, paint it and completely revive it.
My other fun fact is that I don’t like candy. Growing up, I would actually collect food for the food pantry on Halloween rather than candy because any candy I got would just end up in the trash months after getting it.
Author’s Note: Rays of Light is a blog dedicated to spreading positivity, recognizing everyday servants and role models, and allowing others to be vulnerable and share more of their stories. These words are found as they were written, except when subtle rewriting improved narrative flow. It was such a joy getting to know Sydney through this process. Her authenticity, positivity, compassion, and care for others is so refreshing. Sydney has approved this feature’s content.