Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber will become the first Black woman to serve as brigade commander at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
It's the top leadership post for midshipmen — in civilian terms, the equivalent of a student body president — and she is the 16th woman to serve in the position in the 44 years women have been allowed to attend the Naval Academy.
Poised to take over the role as leader of 4,400 midshipmen next semester, Barber told NPR's All Things Considered that there was a time when she had no desire to attend the Naval Academy.
"I never wanted to join the Navy growing up," she said, laughing.
Her father is a graduate of the Naval Academy, and Barber said, "Everything, everywhere, any time, was all about Navy this, Navy that."
She wanted to "write her own path" but kept returning to her "drive for wanting to pursue a career of service, no matter what I did. I wanted to give back to the world."
As she breaks barriers in pursuit of her goals, Barber is aware of what her achievements mean, not just in the context of history writ large but also for her personal, family history. Just a few generations ago, her great-grandparents were sharecroppers on a plantation in Mississippi, she said.
"They would never even picture this moment. This America looks nothing like the America that they experienced, and they died before they saw anything different," Barber said. "So I always take that to heart. And I think about it pretty much daily as I go about my day here at the academy."
The brigade commander — who serves for a semester — is selected by the academy's senior leadership through an application and interview process. The role is currently held by Midshipman 1st Class Ryan Chapman, who calls Barber a "catalyst for action, a visionary, a listener, a doer, and a person driven by compassion, by faith, by a fierce sense of passion and heart full of love."
Barber, a mechanical engineering major, is also a member of the women's varsity track team and holds leadership positions with the Navy Fellowship of Christian Athletes Club and National Society of Black Engineers, among other accomplishments.
In her interview , Barber reflected on the historic nature of her position, her plans for the future and more.
On what she will bring to the position of brigade commander
I feel like I have the heart to do it. My purpose and my objective is to build a team, people who appreciate each other, appreciate every single thing that every person has and brings to the table, who are really embracing our blended organization and want to pursue a purpose, no matter what that looks like, but are driven towards a shared and common goal. ... That's what I want to instill in the brigade as a whole.
On what barriers women in the armed forces still face
There probably are things out there, some limitations that still exist. There definitely are. But I'm not worried about it. I'm not worried about any restrictions, because I feel like we can keep breaking glass ceilings. This is just one of many. Something that I've heard recently and that I've really liked and I've said this a lot, is that with every step that I take, I leave the ladder down for the next person. ...
And so when I think about this experience, I feel like it's special because it's not just about me. It's important that this story circulates for the purpose of the next generation, all over the world, who can look at this experience and look at this story as something that motivates them and inspires them to amount to whatever goal that they have in their life.
On being the focus of so much attention
I try to keep a level head. I try to stay as grounded as possible. I try to keep a low profile, my friends, my teammates, especially on the track team with me, they laugh because they know who I am. They know that I'm the last one to want my picture taken. I never post any stories on social media because I just don't usually like to document everything that's going on in my life. And just the shift of the past week, they laugh because my face is everywhere, my picture is everywhere. I also don't usually like to talk in front of a lot of people or talk about myself. But my mentors have actually helped me with that, and it's great to be humble. And that's something that I try to be as best as possible.
But at the same time, they're like, you need to be confident. You need to own this moment, own the fact that you are the brigade commander. It took me forever to just say that, to say those words, because I don't like to flaunt. I don't I don't want anyone to think that I'm any higher than them.