Ever since she was a young girl, Bérénice Sylverain dreamed of attending a prestigious university in the United Kingdom, inspired by her uncle and mother who encouraged her that she could do anything she set her mind to.
That dream, however, was realized in the form of a missed call.
Sylverain, while in the kitchen cooking one recent day, had her phone set to silent. When finished, she checked her phone, and saw she had a message from the British Consulate General’s San Francisco office.
With much anticipation, Sylverain returned the call, and received the news she had waited much of her life for: She was among 41 across the country to receive a Marshall Scholarship, which will fully fund her graduate studies at the University of Oxford for the next two years.
“I was in tears,” she said. “I didn’t expect that. I was in awe. This is something I always wanted since I was a little girl.”
Sylverain, who is originally from Haiti and grew up in South Santa Clara County, is currently living in New York, where she recently graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in English and Comparative Literature.
The winners of the Marshall Scholarship, announced Dec. 13 and considered among the top undergraduate university students and recent graduates in the United States, were chosen following a rigorous, months-long selection process.
The program received nearly 1,000 applications from top undergraduate students representing institutions across the United States.
The program is principally funded by the British Government, but also receives support through arrangements with British academic institutions, allowing winners to pursue graduate degrees in almost any academic subject at any university in the U.K. The 2022 class will take up their studies at 21 different institutions across the U.K. starting in the fall.
“The class of 22 represent the best of the U.S. in their achievements, talent and wise diversity. We will be delighted to host them in the U.K. and welcome them into the long and proud tradition of Marshall Scholars who have contributed so much to the U.S., U.K. and the world,” said John Raine, chair of the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission. “I am pleased in particular to welcome Scholars from universities who have not sent Marshall Scholars before and hope even more U.S. universities will encourage candidates next year.”
Sylverain will be pursuing two master’s degrees at Oxford: Latin American studies and comparative social policy. She later plans to pursue a PhD with a focus in Haitian diplomacy and government.
Her goal is to establish an archive of Haitian literature, culture and history at a major academic institution. The library “think tank,” as Sylverain describes it, would gather “the most brilliant minds around the world to discuss Haiti, and contemplate the issues and offer a solution on how Haiti can move forward from where it’s at.”
“It’s completely dismantled,” she said. “Some people say there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It needs people to invest in its infrastructure, roads, schools, hospitals. Not a little bit here and there; it needs to be completely revamped.”
Sylverain said the idea for the library stemmed from her time at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia, where she was tasked with gathering texts for the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department.
“It was so thrilling for me,” she said. “It was clicking for me as I was leafing through papers. I said, ‘this is what Haiti needs.’ I would love to collate our history, being able to uplift the voices of the marginalized within our community.”
Sylverain said she was drawn to Oxford because of its library’s large collection of Haitian studies, adding she wants to help grow it while she is there.
This isn’t the first time Sylverain made the newspapers in South Santa Clara County. In 2005, the Morgan Hill Times published an article on a local mother on yard duty at P.A. Walsh Elementary School, who performed the Heimlich maneuver on then-sixth-grader Sylverain, who was choking on ribs she was eating for lunch.
Sylverain said that despite the incident, ribs remain one her favorite foods, adding that she has friends and family in Morgan Hill and Gilroy who often send her that article.
Sylverain starts her studies at Oxford in October, but said she plans on traveling there sooner to get acclimated to British culture.
“I am hoping I can get as much support as possible,” she said. “I’m very optimistic about what the future holds not just for myself, but for the future of Haiti.
“This isn’t for me. This is for my country.”