Before young people can reap the benefits of a good education, according to Sylvia Carey-Butler, they have to realize and appreciate its value.
For Carey-Butler, a Schenectady native who grew up in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood, that recognition came in the ninth grade.
“When you grow up with seven brothers, you tend to get aggressive,” said Carey-Butler, who recently left the United Negro College Fund in Atlanta for an administrative position at the University of Oshkosh in Wisconsin. “I was the class president of the ninth grade at Steinmetz Junior High, and I think that’s where the seeds of leadership began to develop. That’s when I learned some self-respect and got excited about education. I suddenly realized what education could mean for my future.”
At noon on Sunday at the Duryee AME Memorial Zion Church in Schenectady, Carey-Butler will discuss her career in education and the support she received as a child that enabled her to take advantage of the opportunities she had.
“I’m going to talk about the church, the community and education,” she said. “It’s about putting our faith into action. I’m looking at the role of the church in supporting the community to ensure that young people not only have the access to education that they need, but also the support they need as it relates to tutoring and being able to take advantage of what they have.”
Carey-Butler’s family attended both the Duryee Church and the Refreshing Springs Church in Schenectady when she was young, and she also spent plenty of valuable time at the Carver Community Center.
“Things were readily available for me because I had that support, and Carver was a vibrant place when I was a young girl,” said Carey-Butler. “My whole family would go there and it was a fantastic place. We socialized, but it was also a great place for programs, and there were people there who were committed to our success.”
Carey-Butler, 56, graduated from Mont Pleasant High School and went on to SUNY Oneonta before getting her master’s degree in education at SUNY Binghamton and a doctorate in higher education administration at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
She started her career as an academic adviser at Binghamton, and also worked at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, Dillard University in New Orleans and Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. In 2006, she was the first black woman to receive Oneonta’s Alumnae of the Year Award. In 1996 she was the recipient of Lafayette’s People’s Choice Award.
Before taking her new position at Oshkosh — she is the assistant vice chancellor for academic support of inclusive excellence — Carey-Butler worked as the interim executive director of the United Negro College Fund’s Institute for Capacity Building and was director of its enrollment management program for nine years.
“Working in Atlanta for the United Negro College Fund was phenomenal,” said Carey-Butler. “I got a chance to work with 38 historically black colleges and universities, systemizing how they recruit and retain students. We developed a model about recruiting and retention, and that has really been where my passion is: helping those individuals find the success they’re looking for in academics.”
Carey-Butler is married to Paul Butler, a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Army, and the couple have three children.
“My youngest is 18 and he’s going to come with us to Oshkosh,” said Carey-Butler. “I’ll be charged with helping the Oshkosh community, about 13,500 students, understand the role of diversity in the curriculum, in and out of the classroom. It’s not a very diverse community, but it has been engaged in significant diversity initiatives, and I’m very excited about the opportunity I’ve been given there. I’m very much looking forward to it.”
During her quick visit home, Carey-Butler will be looking into the quality of education in the Schenectady City School District.
“I assume it’s good, and it’s much more diverse than it was when I was in school,” she said. “I had some great teachers, like Mrs. Danish, Jesse Robinson, but I think about the experience of students of color, and I wonder if they’re getting enough support to take advantage of the academic opportunities beyond high school.”
Doing what she can
While Carey-Butler doesn’t get back to Schenectady that often, she does keep an eye on the children of her siblings and their academic hopes and dreams.
“Sylvia has been really helpful to all her nieces and nephews in Schenectady, making sure they have the information that will insure they continue their education,” said Marsha Mortimore, a member at Duryee. “Education is paramount to her, and when I think of Sylvia I think of ‘it takes a village.’ She’s a very inclusive person who wants everybody to realize their dream.”
“My own success story isn’t my story,” Carey-Butler said. “It was my family, it was the people at Duryee and Refreshing Springs and my wonderful teachers. They all played a pivotal role, the entire community, and it’s their success story. I know that growing up in Hamilton Hill is a challenge, and, without that community behind you, it’s very hard to succeed. That’s what I’ll be talking about. I’m going to try to compel the community to do more, and I’m going to challenge them to do more.”