JOHNSTOWN – Sydney Swedick is still a bit in shock.
The 19-year-old Johnstown native said she’s always had a “try everything” mentality, being from a smaller community. So, as her time at SUNY Schenectady is coming to an end, she applied for a number of scholarships and awards, including the All-USA Academic Team. That one, even after becoming one of only 2,200 nominees nationwide, she never expected to win.
Then, two weeks ago, she received her medallion as one of only 20 community college students to receive the award at the Phi Theta Kappa President’s Breakfast at the American Association of Community Colleges convention in New York City. The award recognizes high achieving college students who demonstrate academic excellence and intellectual rigor combined with leadership and service that extends their education beyond the classroom to benefit society, according to the Phi Theta Kappa website.
“A lot of people tell me that I don’t have a 24-hour day, that my day is like 48 hours long, because I do so much and I work so hard. But it really doesn’t feel like that because I’ve always worked really hard,” said Swedick, who carries a 4.0 grade point average. “I think that’s something that my parents really instilled in me, at a very young age, was as long as you work hard you can do and you can choose anything you want to.”
Her professor Dr. Margaret McLellan-Zabielski, also advisor to Phi Theta Kappa, has taught at two- and four-year institutions. They said they have run into exemplary students, good leaders, students who work well with others, and sometimes they’ve even run into students with a combination of all those skills.
McLellan-Zabielski said Swedick on top of all of that has a few extra attributes.
“She’s also got an interesting drive and curiosity to her from her own experiences that have really helped her stay focused on her path and stay really interested,” McLellan-Zabielski said. “But she’s also you know, she’s not, she’s not cocky about her level of knowledge, she knows that she’s got limitations, and she continues to be curious and learning.”
The educator said they had their first hint that Swedick was going to do what she has done last semester in cell and molecular biology class. They assigned the students a flip-the-classroom presentation where they would be assigned a chapter to present to the class. Not only was Swedick’s assignment early, but it was at a depth McLellan-Zabielski didn’t expect any student to reach until the end of the semester, if at all.
“We were talking about information that was new to her. It wasn’t like, ‘Alright, let’s talk about DNA replication for the 18th time in a row.’ It was new information to her that she was synthesizing and re-presenting to her fellow students,” McLellan-Zabielski said.
Swedick is the vice president of the SUNY Schenectady chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the official honor society for two-year colleges. Phi Theta Kappa is just one of roughly 20 clubs and organizations Swedick is involved with on and off campus, taking a leadership role in many of them. Just to name a few, the science major, going on to study biomedical engineering, is the founding president of the garden club, has been chair of the Student Activity Board, student liaison to the steering committee for state Solve Climate Change by 2030 conference – all while commuting daily from Johnstown.
Swedick gives credit for her accomplishments to those she’s met through all her involvement.
“The people that I’ve met through it are the ones who have helped me win awards and be recognized in various different ways and have only helped lead to new opportunities and meet new people,” she said. “So all the things I’ve been involved with has created this really beautiful network of other opportunities and this kind of domino effect.”
McLellan-Zabielski has known Swedick for most of her two years at SUNY Schenectady. They has witnessed just how much Swedick values teamwork. They said Swedick was a regular at office hours, even last school year as much of instruction was done virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Swedick was asking questions and reaching out to classmates for collaboration – not just focused on her own educational growth.
The support of those around her is something that has always been apparent to Swedick. The middle child of five children said her parents have always told their kids when they were really young that they would always have each other. Swedick says her siblings – Evan, 29, Morgan, 26, Ayden, 10th-grader at Johnstown, and Brielle, 8th-grader at Johnstown – are the ones that push her, motivate her, and always have a listening ear.
She also said the five of them put great emphasis on keeping good relationships with each other.
“They’re definitely the biggest part of all my success, it’s not just me, even though I’m the one winning them. It’s really, I think, a [creation] of all my siblings and my parents and the work of us together because I really could not have done it without them,” Swedick said.
Her family also had a large impact on her desire to study engineering. Even though he died when Swedick was young, her grandfather’s example as an electrical engineer at General Electric sparked an interest in her and her older brother Evan, a computer engineer. The two siblings were always messing around with computers and different things. She also points to her father’s career in house construction as inspiration. She worked with him growing up, and has always been interested in building with her own two hands.
However, the biomedical focus came into the picture as she faced many different medical conditions growing up. When Swedick was just 12, she had two titanium rods and 11 screws put into her spine during a 10-hour spinal fusion surgery. She said that process showed her what she wanted to do in her career.
Medical challenges followed her through high school and into her time at SUNY Schenectady. She said she was diagnosed a couple years ago with a severe form of an autoimmune disease known as Graves’ disease, an immune system disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones, which affect many body systems, according to the Mayo Clinic. For years, it went undiagnosed because her symptoms were attributed to allergies. She finally had her thyroid removed and is just facing the residual effects of the disease now. However, she is also diagnosed with Thyroid Eye Disease, another autoimmune disease linked to Graves in which the eye muscles, eyelids, tear glands and fatty tissues behind the eye become inflamed, according to the British Thyroid Foundation, she is still waiting to have surgery. The surgery will help Swedick avoid a lot of damage to her eyes down the road, if left untreated, she said.
All of these roadblocks have only solidified Swedick’s resolve.
“Once you overcome one obstacle, there’s always going to be another one,” she said. “So, you can either let it hold you back, or you can just keep moving forward.”
McLellan-Zabielski said all that their student has faced gives her an advantage that only those with similar experiences would perceive, let alone have themselves.
“When you’ve had medical adventures, you have a better idea of your own energy and your own limitations,” McLellan-Zabielski said, “which does not mean that you have more limitations to what you can do. But, you have a better idea of how to take care of yourself and listen to your body and have that balance to continue to do the work, continue to do the research, continue to excel without approaching the edge of burnout.”
Between all of the trials that have come her way, and the difference in the amount of opportunities in a smaller city like Johnstown than a bigger or more affluent place, Swedick has also been motivated to keep the door to all she has experienced open to those coming behind her. She is an ambassador on the SUNY Schenectady campus for the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), a state Department of Education program with the purpose of increasing the number of students from under-represented groups who are pursuing professional licensure and careers in mathematics, science, technology and health-related fields. She is also a member of the campus’s TRIO program which is a federally Education Department outreach and student services program designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As Swedick has learned about and gotten involved with more and more opportunities, she’s realized all the more that “you don’t know what you don’t know, and if you don’t know it, there’s no possible way of even trying to obtain it,” she said.
“There’s so many people that have untapped potential to do great things in this world,” Swedick said, “and we could have so many more people that are creating and doing successful things, if we were able to just show them the opportunities that are there, and show them the path and the ways that it takes to get there, and how to eliminate those barriers.”
The All-USA honor is just one of several honors Swedick has received recently. She was also named to the All-New York Academic Team, earned the 2022 New Century Transfer Scholar Award, which goes to one student from each state, and was one of 15 students selected into the Johns Hopkins University Amgen Scholar U.S. Program, according to a SUNY Schenectady press release. The 10-week undergraduate summer research program in science and biotechnology will allow her to work full time on an independent research project under Hopkins’ faculty guidance, according to the release.
Swedick said she was accepted into multiple summer programs and had to do a double take when she got into the one at Johns Hopkins. She said couldn’t believe she had multiple great opportunities to choose from, which was a really big deal for her, she said. She hopes the 10 weeks in Baltimore will show that she is up to standard for what she wants to do and that it will affirm that she is on the right path forward.
“I hope to just gain more confidence in my abilities, and be more confident in [that] this is what I want to do, and this is specifically what I want to do and where I want to do it,” she said.
During her second year of college, Swedick has also commuted to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for courses on top of those in Schenectady as she prepares to continue her studies for a bachelor’s degree. She hasn’t decided where she will be studying next just yet, but is looking out of state after staying close to home.
Her professor said Swedick is not done working with her cohort at SUNY Schenectady just yet. In fact, McLellan-Zabielski said they are still hearing Swedick checking in with friends to make sure they are also getting their scholarship and award applications in, so they have a chance at all the opportunities they can, too.
“She’s still supporting the people around her,” the professor said. “She’s not trying to be a monolith. She’s trying to bring everyone with her.”