Sylvia Quarles Simmons ‘57

Sylvia Quarles Simmons ’57

Written by Nataly Cifuentes ’16

Sylvia Simmons '57

Sylvia Simmons ’57

Sylvia Quarles Simmons ’57 has been very influential in the field of Education, particularly in improving access to and financing of higher education. She has worked as a professor at prestigious universities and also behind the scenes, participating in the development and implementation of programs that have made higher education possible for more students. Retirement did not mark the end of her career, as she continued to nurture her passions through teaching graduate courses at Boston University and staying involved with the Museum of Fine Arts.

Graduating from Girls’ Latin School, in Boston, Sylvia wanted to attend a small women’s college. As she considered where to apply, her guidance counselor encouraged her to apply to Manhattanville. The College’s Catholic tradition and the glamour of New York City appealed to Simmons, and in 1953, she began her undergraduate studies at Manhattanville College. Four years later, she graduated with a major in European History and a minor in German.

Sylvia’s college experience was unique. As the only African-American woman in her class, Simmons was aware that most of her classmates had not previously been in school with any African-American students. However, this did not stop her in her endeavors. She became an active student on campus, eventually being elected Vice President of her class. In fact, her yearbook picture includes this caption: “To know Sylvia is to love her. As Vice-President of the class of 1957, she has carried out her office with calm foresight. Her contagious laugh and New England wit have added an ever-buoyant spirit to Student Government. We are sure that her extraordinary gifts will equally benefit her own home and community, and we look with envy upon everyone who will cross her path, for what they will receive of delightful companionship and serene wisdom.”

Carole Neri '57 (left) and Sylvia Simmons '57 (right)

Carole Neri ’57 (left) and Sylvia Simmons ’57 (right)

In 1957, she graduated from Manhattanville and married Herbert G. Simmons, Jr. Although her plan was to become a diplomat, her life vision changed once she started a family. Manhattanville had developed her intellectual curiosity and she always had the desire to have a career along with her family life. “My education at Manhattanville moved me to move, not just to stay home, but to do more than that. It moved me into a career that seemed realistic and sensible at the time.” Simmons decided to become a teacher, and after the birth of her first child, she earned her Master’s in Education from Boston College, from where she later earned a Ph.D.

Sylvia began her career as a Montessori teacher and as a Social Service Supervisor for the Head Start Program. Eventually, she moved into higher education and worked as the Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard University and Radcliffe College, Director of Financial Aid and Associate Dean for Women’s Education at Radcliffe College, and Registrar for the Boston College School of Management. She has also served as the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Massachusetts, President’s Office.

Later, Simmons became the President of the American Student Assistance Corporation of America (ASA) and the American Student Assistance Services Corp., Inc. Prior to becoming President, she had served as the Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Vice President for Field Services. During her time at ASA, she was one of the founders of the Higher Education Information Center, which is now a model for Centers nationwide.

Following her retirement in 1995, Sylvia continued to be involved with activities that were meaningful to her. She shared, “I was ready to do all sorts of things: teaching, getting involved with the Museum, consulting. I sit on a number of Boards. I’m constantly learning all the time. There is so much to do and so many interesting things for people as they move away from their career. And I have found that I have added a whole new dimension to my life in a variety of ways.”

Today, she works with nonprofit organizations in many capacities and as a consultant with the Executive Service Corps of New England. In addition, Sylvia developed her passion for art through her involvement as a Trustee at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where she also serves as a docent.

Sylvia has been the recipient of several prestigious recognitions. She has received Honorary Degrees from St. Joseph’s College (1994), Merrimack College (1999), and Boston College (2011). Her numerous awards include the Human and Civil Rights Award (Mass. Teachers Association), Educator of the Year Award (Boston and Vicinity Club), Sojourner’s Daughters (25 African-American Women Who Have Made a Difference) and Alumnae Service Award (Manhattanville College). Furthermore, she has also co-edited the book Student Loans: Risks and Realities.

Looking back, Sylvia feels that her career was built on valuable opportunities. As she began working in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movements, she was offered important positions in the field of Education. She realized that being an African-American woman was both a blessing and a challenge. Although she was offered many opportunities for this reason, she had to prove she was more than just an affirmative action candidate for the positions, but rather someone who was properly qualified for the roles. She shared, “I had to prove I was smart, that I could be better, so that people would take me seriously and think of me as an individual and not how I looked or my gender. That’s a challenge, and I think it continues to be a challenge today for women, African-American women in particular.”

Despite the challenges, Simmons believes her Manhattanville education provided her the strength and willingness to take risks. “They taught me how to think, how to research, how to understand things I didn’t understand. I was able to say ‘I can do this job,’ and not give up.”

When asked what she is the most proud of, Sylvia responded, “My children. They are my legacy, they are very involved and I think they’ll make a difference. I’ve also been proud of being able to play a part in the access and financing of higher education, but I’m the most proud of my children. They’re terrific people. Caring and compassionate.”

Keeping in touch with her alma mater has been important to Simmons, who was a member of the Board of Trustees for over thirty years. Along with late fellow alumna Sheila Smythe, Sylvia established the Distinguished Alumni Award. She has been witness to the College’s growth and improvements, but she is ultimately glad that it has kept the Sacred Heart tradition of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, in terms of social values and academic rigor.

Mother Sullivan and Sister Clark were instrumental in Sylvia’s path, during and after her college years, and she remembers the Sisters of the Sacred Heart very fondly, as well as the lifelong friendships she made while at Manhattanville. Her evenings at the snack bar, going ice skating in Rye, taking trips to New York City and living at the Cottage during senior year all have a special place in her heart.

Sylvia Simmons '57

Sylvia Simmons ’57

As advice to the current students’ generation, Sylvia wants people to be themselves, be strong, but diplomatic, and always be prepared. She believes it is important to have the courage and the certainty to move forward, but to never allow that courage to take away those personal pieces, such as compassion, that are so very important.

Sylvia encapsulated her experience with the following statement, “Manhattanville made me grow, think very deeply and care deeply about people. It also honed my leadership skills and deepened my spirituality. It certainly gave me an incredible education, but it also gave me life skills, and as an African-American woman, it gave me the toughness and ability to live in a world full of obstacles.”


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