Photograph by Dorothy Hong
Sylvia Montero says her journey from a plantation shack in Puerto Rico to the position of highest ranking Latina at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer couldn’t have happened without two forces: Her parents and her time at Barnard. So when she had the opportunity to create a scholarship at her alma mater, she jumped at it: “I want to help another ‘Sylvia,’” she says. “Barnard changed my life.”
Montero, now 63, was born in Puerto Rico. Her parents, Eligia and Cruz, had elementary-level educations. Montero remembers a rural shack, big backyard garden, and lots of love in the home. But her parents wanted their children to have more opportunities than they did, so they moved to Nueva York, where relatives said there was more work available. Her father got a job in a factory and her mother stayed home to care for the children.
Neither parent spoke English, so they were unable to help the children with their homework, but both stressed the importance of education. Montero excelled at school and knew she wanted to attend college, but she never dreamed of Barnard. “The circumference of my life was defined by the surrounding blocks and the subway line to the Bronx that took us to see relatives,” she says. She applied to Barnard at the insistence of a high school guidance counselor. To her surprise, she received a full scholarship.
The trip meant taking three subway lines from her family’s apartment on the Lower East Side; it felt like a world away. “In school, my mind could get out of my neighborhood,” she says. She fondly recalls discussing politics and news between classes. “We talked about the dictatorships in Latin America, the Vietnam war,” she says. “They were discussions that were beyond my day-to-day experience.” Inside the classroom, she felt encouraged to speak up. As a result, she blossomed. “My sense of being a woman, my sense of self-esteem as a minority, grew immensely,” she says.
But Montero’s college experience was different than that of most of her peers in a few key ways: Instead of living on campus, she stayed on the Lower East Side. After her first year, she got married. The following year, she had a baby. She took spring term and the summer off to care for her son, then returned to Barnard. She remembers feeling anxious on her first trip back to campus, wondering if her grades would suffer because she’d been away. But an academic adviser put Montero’s mind at ease and ensured that she could pick up her studies right where she left off. Montero resolved to graduate from Barnard on time, taking extra classes and attending summer school to achieve her goal. A Spanish literature major, she found professors Margarita Ucelay and Mirella d’Ambrosio Servodidio ’55 to be inspiring role models during those challenging undergraduate years.
Her parents also continued to support her education. “My mom was amazing,” she says. “In the morning, I’d pack up my son, my school bag, and dirty clothes. I’d take those three bundles on the bus, and leave my son and the dirty clothes with my mom,” she says. When she returned from a long day on campus, her son was well cared for and her clothes were clean and pressed. “There’s no doubt in my siblings’ or my mind that my parents lived for their children, and they sacrificed a lot of potential pleasure for us,” affirms Montero.
Montero continued her education at Queens College, where she taught undergraduate courses. A year later, she got her first full-time job as a teacher. But just as things were looking up, her marriage fell apart and her parents moved back to Puerto Rico. Then she received a pink slip. Without a job or spouse—and with her son devastated over losing his grandparents—she made a quick decision: She and her son would move to Puerto Rico, too.
There, she quickly found a job teaching Spanish literature and language to non-native speakers. One of her students worked at a small pharmaceutical company, and helped Montero get work translating personnel manuals from English to Spanish. She didn’t know it at the time, but that side job started her down a path to a career in human resources. Landing at Pfizer in 1978, she transferred to the firm’s New York office in 1982, and eventually rose through the ranks to become senior vice president of human resources.
When Montero retired from Pfizer in 2007, friends and colleagues encouraged her to write down her life story. The result is a book about the lessons she learned throughout her career and life: Make it Your Business: Dare to Climb the Ladder to Leadership was published last year by Front Row Press. Montero now spends her time volunteering, speaking about the book to various audiences, and playing with her grandchildren every weekend.
In Montero’s experience, a Barnard degree “continues to open doors.” She adds, “In a corporate environment, having Barnard on a résumé says that you were able to compete successfully in a very challenging environment, and those are qualities that senior executives are looking for.”
When approached about the scholarship, she didn’t hesitate. And she knew exactly what she’d name it: The Eligia and Cruz Montero Scholarship is Montero’s homage to her hard-working parents, who pushed her to succeed and supported her along the way. “You should have seen their eyes gleam when I told them,” she says. “They were so proud. My father was alive then and it was just wonderful to see his reaction.”
Montero says creating the scholarship was a win-win: She gets to honor her parents, who gave her and her siblings a love for education, and she helps another young woman blossom into a “Barnard girl”—a term she uses intentionally. Says Montero, “The only time I refer to myself as a girl anymore is to say I’m a Barnard girl.”