USC Marshall Student Awarded Scholarship to Develop First-Ever Library Dedicated to Haitian Studies

Bérénice Sylverain will use the U.K. Marshall Scholarship to pursue studies aimed at reclaiming Haiti’s history — and promoting its future.

Bérénice Sylverain says she has always had big dreams. One of the biggest came true when the British government informed her that she had earned a 2022 Marshall Scholarship.

Out of nearly 1,000 applicants, Sylverain was one of just 41 recipients this year of the prestigious scholarship, which includes Supreme Court justices, Pulitzer Prize winners and a Nobel laureate among its previous awardees.

The scholarship will fund Sylverain’s pursuit of degrees in Latin American studies and comparative social policy at the University of Oxford. As if that were not a full enough academic schedule, she will also be completing her online Master of Management in Library and Information Science (MMLIS), a specialized online MLIS degree that is offered through another notable Marshall — the top-ranked USC Marshall School of Business.

“What I most like [about the MMLIS degree] is the fact that it’s part of a business school,” she told USC Online.

In choosing a library science graduate program, Sylverain saw that angle as vital because of her plans to create a pioneering library devoted to her native country of Haiti.

“Although you first think of it from more of the intellectual and artistic perspective, a library is also a business,” Sylverain said of her planned enterprise. “You need to raise funding, and you need to know how to run it, as well as the necessary skills for organizational leadership and marketing. I felt USC would definitely prepare me for that. The program doesn’t just cover the librarianship side but also how to run a project and present ideas to a board or to your employees.”

From Haiti to the U.S. — and Back

Sylverain’s journey began at an early age, when she emigrated with her mother from Haiti to the United States. Her mother was a journalist, so Sylverain grew up with a love for information. But her mom was also keenly aware of Haiti’s political strife. By the time they left, democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been ousted in the first of two coups against him.

“She realized what was coming,” she said of her mother, who moved them to Southern California when Sylverain was 5. “It was just the two of us. She didn’t want to leave Haiti, but she had a kid and also knew there were more opportunities for me here in America.”

While she grew up more than 3,000 miles away, Sylverain’s devotion to Haiti has only grown stronger over the years: “I always had this connection to my country, even though I left at a very young age. My mother would take me back every single year, and we would spend two to four months there,” she said. “So, I had the opportunity to truly connect with the culture and the people.”

Tragically, her mother died when Sylverain was just 17, but her mom’s memory and the possibilities she opened for her daughter remain an inspiration.

Reassembling a Scattered Heritage

After attending De Anza College in Cupertino, California, Sylverain moved to New York to study at Columbia University. While earning her bachelor’s degree in English and comparative literature, she began working with the university’s African American and African Diaspora Studies Department.

“I found my niche in Haitian studies and literature,” she said, and her ambitions came into focus. “Haiti was the first Black free nation in the Western Hemisphere. It has such a rich and colorful history that not many people know about. I knew I wanted to create an archive for Haitian studies and a library focused on the history, diplomacy, literature and arts of Haiti.”

The need is great because no such library currently exists. The challenge is enormous as well, since many of these materials are scattered around the world.

“Even the legal documents from when Haiti was first established as a country are in England,” Sylverain explained.

That fact — as well as a history that includes a British invasion before Haitian independence from France in 1804 — makes the United Kingdom a good place for Sylverain to continue her work through the Marshall Scholarship. Plus, she has wanted to study at Oxford ever since childhood.

“My mother and uncle told me about the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships when I was 9 or 10,” Sylverain said.

Marshaling Her Aims With the MMLIS

While the Marshall Scholarship involves traveling to the U.K., the USC Marshall MMLIS program is studied remotely. So, Sylverain will be able to log in to courses from Oxford as easily as she does now from her current home in New York. She finds flexibility to be just one of the program’s advantages.

“The courses are really varied,” she said of the program’s curriculum — which covers all aspects of librarianship, from research collection development to information technologies, in addition to providing leadership and management training. “So far, I’ve taken the project management courses, studied communications and taken the class on metadata and cataloguing. There’s an option to do archives and special collections as well.”

The curriculum’s variety and scope are important because, as Sylverain explains, “I didn’t want to be limited to one area of librarianship.”

She also enjoys the diversity of her classmates: “I’m taking courses with people from all over,” Sylverain said. “We have a lawyer, someone in tech sales, a teacher and a stay-at-home mom who wants to get back to the workplace. It’s beautiful to see how multifaceted the cohort is — especially when we do group projects and can draw on everyone’s experiences.”

Promoting a Future Haiti

After completing her Marshall Scholarship at Oxford and library and information science degree online from USC, Sylverain plans to pursue a PhD to further her knowledge of Haitian politics and diplomacy. She hopes the library she develops will serve as a think tank as well as an archive, looking forward as well as showcasing the country’s history.

“My long-term goal is to bring the best minds together to contemplate and offer solutions for advancing Haiti,” Sylverain said. “I want to provide a space for action. And I hope we can generate publications and reports with information that people can use to improve infrastructure, schools, the health care system and the environment.”

She also plans on exploring ways to restructure Haiti’s economic and social welfare systems, based on areas of study she will engage in at Oxford.

Sylverain’s ambitious desire to help Haiti progress and thrive harkens back to the man for whom the Marshall Scholarships were named: George Marshall, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for devising the plan that aided Western Europe’s economies after World War II.

“I want to be part of the legacy of what Marshall left behind through his diplomatic work on behalf of the U.S. and the U.K.,” she said. “As I was applying for the scholarship, I thought of doing that for Haiti — building diplomatic relations between it and other nations.”

And the scholarship means more to her than prestige.

“Applying for it made me think about what my own legacy will be,” she added. “The Marshall Scholarship is a steppingstone for me to do greater things with my life — including things that are far beyond what I could ever achieve on my own.”

Explore USC Marshall’s online Master of Management in Library and Information Science program today.