By Terri Moon Cronk
Senior-class Naval Academy Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber is a mechanical engineering major at the campus in Annapolis, Maryland, and will be a 2nd lieutenant Marine Corps ground officer when she graduates this spring.
She’s on the women’s varsity track and field team, co-president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club and secretary of the National Society of Black Engineers. She also sings with the academy’s gospel choir and is a member of the Midshipman Black Studies Club. In addition, she initiated a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach program for mentoring middle school girls of color in STEM.
If that is not enough, Barber is also making Navy history as the academy’s first Black female brigade commander this spring semester.
In the Naval Academy’s 175-year history, women were only first accepted into the class of 1980, and Barber is only the 16th woman selected for brigade commander in those past 41 years, beating out 30 competitors for the top leadership position.
Hailing from Lake Forest, Illinois, Barber, at 21 years-old, is known as the “six-striper” at the academy. She said last night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in Simi Valley, California, that she’s in the highest leadership position within the brigade of more than 4,000 midshipmen, and she has a staff of 30 people.
As brigade commander, Barber finds solutions to issues that exist in the brigade and presents them to the academy commandant at the end of the day, among her many other duties.
“My job is to build a team,” she said. “The team has to trust you and respect you and know their voices are heard. They must feel critical to the mission, and you must touch the hearts of the people you lead.”
Barber said she never pictured herself as brigade commander. “I looked up to strong female leaders and had lot[s] of role models. A year ago, someone said they could see me as battalion commander, so I took on leadership roles, performed community service and joined service clubs. I threw my name in the hat to maximize my potential as much as possible.”
Her efforts had to do with her becoming the best version of herself, she said.
A self-described introvert, she’s not used to being under the spotlight that’s shined on her since her appointment, but she came to embrace the idea that another opportunity might not exist for someone else who looks like her.
Barber says she feels blessed to be brigade commander at the academy, and her approach comprises her lifelong faith, heart and passion. Service has been her lifelong passion, whether serving her country or working in a soup kitchen.
As a teen, she left her comfortable suburban life to do humanitarian work in Chicago, the Dominican Republic and India, among other places.
“It opened my eyes,” she said of working in the Dominican Republic. “I grew up in privilege and affluence. I saw people living in metal sheds and making it from one meal to the next. There is much more to life than materialism, and it made me grateful for all I had. I want to pour that back into the world.”
The Naval Academy, she noted, was the perfect place for her to do that, and she pursues three things in her life: heart, purpose and legacy.
“There’s no greater sacrifice or expression of love than someone who’s willing to lay down their life for their country,” Barber said. “What we do is out of an act of love. Out of love, you make sacrifices, and love is proven by action. Everyone wants to have purpose, but words are meaningless unless you pursue the action, not only in this generation, but especially in 10, 20, 30 years.”
When she thinks about the life she wants hers to be, Barber wants to confidently say she emptied the tank and did all she could with her humanitarian passion.
“I pursued things that light fire in my heart,” she said. “In diversity and inclusion, how do you impact a large sector of people? In a Marine Corps career, leading with heart can be unconventional, but empathy, fostering trust, sharing your story and embracing someone else’s, cultivates the passions of others.”
Throughout her career, leadership is and will always be essential to Barber and the legacy she wants to leave.
-This story first appeared on Defense.gov. It has been edited for USO.org.
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