By Abigail Hall
If you ask Sydney Schwichtenberg what she believes in, she’ll say “I don’t know.”
Growing up in the small Oklahoma town of Locust Grove, population of 1400, just outside the capital of the Cherokee Nation, the professional writing senior was surrounded by indigenous lore mixed with messages from the white, Protestant churches littered across the town.
Eating fry bread while listening to Cherokee storytellers, Schwichtenberg became sure of one thing — “we’re capable of magic,” she said.
While she’s unsure of how life came to be, and what capacity of mysticism the universe contains, she believes in the impossible — that one day she could wake up in another form, cherishes the healing practice of Reiki and firmly attests that fate foretold the loving relationship she has with her boyfriend, Jesse.
Feminist, first-generation college student, a self-proclaimed believer in the “spooky” — Schwichtenberg sat down with the author to talk about her beliefs, being an assertive woman in a small town, and her future:
Do you think your beliefs in mysticism come from growing up around indigenous culture?
A: Yeah, I will say that. I believe in manifestation and everything. I think that we also get vibes and energy from other people. I think I can tell when there’s a good person around, or when there’s a bad person.
I think there was a narrative in my school — we had events and programs at our school that I’m really grateful for. People would come and make fry bread and would tell us stories.
Storytellers from Cherokee Nation would come and tell us about how the earth began and all of these folk tales that came from the tribe. And so there was always this big storytelling component, and (narrative that) nature gives us everything.
What was it like to grow up in Locust Grove, Oklahoma as a burgeoning feminist and liberal?
A: I feel like I had a different experience than other people.
I feel like growing up in Locust Grove was weird for me. Because one, I was one out of four liberals in the entire school, so that was always hard. A lot of people told me that I’m one of the most assertive people that they’ve ever met.
And being an assertive woman in a small town — if you’re not in the right community, if you’re surrounded with the right people — it can be very isolating, and I think I was lucky because I was smart, and I was assertive, and I was pretty enough not to get bullied for being a bitch.
So I think a lot of men wanted to punch the shit out of me. And I was really scared sometimes of the guys that I went to school with, and the guys that I dated. I actually broke up with one because he made a really scary comment about Hillary Clinton. And I was like, well you were just pretending not to be horrible for like three months.
But I think I’m lucky that I grew up in that town, because now I know if I can stand up to the absolute worst of the worst, I think that I already have a head start on a lot of things. I don’t have a hard time standing up for myself, I don’t have a hard time telling people when I’m uncomfortable — I don’t have a hard time saying no when certain situations.
I got to meet older generations that are more progressive than some of the people that I went to school with, I got to meet a lot of strong, powerful older women — and I’m eternally grateful for them because I feel like I’ve gained seven different mothers.
I’ve also met some crazy old men, so men just keep on getting worse, it doesn’t matter how old they are.
Was there a moment you remember when you had a realization that it’s okay to be an assertive person and be a woman?
A: An interesting conversation came up with me and my oldest sister, Ashley, and my mom, and my sister was like — you’re too assertive.
And I was like, what’s wrong with being assertive? What’s wrong with getting what you want? And she was like, ‘Well, I’m more polite because I don’t want to be called a bitch.’
And I laughed because (being called a bitch) has never been anything I’ve worried about — like if a man wants to call me a bitch, they can call me a bitch all they want. I’m going to still get shit done.
Why is it so important to you for women to be assertive and outspoken?
A: It’s really vital for me to be an assertive person because I have seen too many times where women in my life have been run over by men. And as a younger person, I didn’t have that vocabulary yet to stand up. I’ve always been a very heavily empathetic person, and like, I feel like when I was growing up in the town, I had to stand up for them — to see shit happen to women, it made me go crazy.
And then I would do something right, and then men in my school would be celebrated for doing the exact same thing that I did. And that would piss me off so much. I get this comment a lot where they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re so humble,’ after I brag about something that I’ve done.
Statistically, it’s proven that women definitely discount their successes an incredible amount. They don’t even acknowledge what they have done in their life, and men they say they achieve this much, but in reality, that’s not what they’ve actually done.
Why does it look like I’m bragging when men do the same thing? And they’re known as leaders, or they’re known as highly successful, highly intelligent — I’m doing all the things that they’re doing, I’m working two jobs, I’m a first generation student. I’ve worked hard to be here.
Why can I not brag when I like something that I do? I just feel like when people take away your power brag on yourself, what does that mean that someone else has to tell me that I’m good at something I know I’m good at?
I’m a bitch and I don’t give a shit.
As a first generation student, what was your journey in getting to OU?
A: I desperately wanted out of that town. I knew that I wanted to be educated. I always thought, ‘I’m going to go to school.’ A lot of people say college was a decision for them. For me it was always just the next step. I was like — this is mandatory, this is something that I had to do.
Luckily I got I get a lot of help from my dad’s G.I. bill, I get a lot of help from my job as a resident advisor, I get a lot of help from my other job, I get a lot of help from loans, and I get a lot of help from scholarships.
So it was definitely a pain to get here, and my experience is way different than a lot of other people that I know. But I’m glad that I had this experience, because I feel like a lot of my friends are first generation, and a lot of my friends have the same struggles as me and a lot of my friends and we can relate to each other.
What about your college experience is different than how you see the general college student’s experience?
A: For instance I didn’t come here with a car my freshman year because I wrecked my first car and I had to pay for that, and I had to pay for my new car. So I worked for an entire year, and I still have a car payment…I paid for my phone bill, I pay for all my gas.
My parents are like, ‘If you want something, you’re just gonna have to buy it.’ But a lot of people that I know, they’re like, ‘I have to call my dad and he has to venmo me $100.’ And every time I borrow money I have to get it back to my parents — and that’s not bad. I’m glad for that experience.
And once you pay for a car, and you pay for where you live, or you work for where you live, and you have to pay your phone bill or you’re not going to have a phone, that changes you a lot.
What could I do if I didn’t have to work two jobs? My gpa would be incredible, and I think about people that I know that are doing five million things, but they don’t have — a thing that’s been hard for me is I really wanted to be in a sorority and I just couldn’t do that.
Looking back, I wouldn’t want to be in a sorority now — and I knew that I couldn’t afford it. But I remember being so sad. I was just like, ‘this is part of college, this is what I’m supposed to do.’
I just always have to remind myself, they have these connections because they’re not first generation students, their parents have been going here forever, their parents donate here, their parents are engineers, their parents make triple what my dad makes in six months — they’re so insanely rich in ways that I can’t understand.
Some people don’t have to have a job, I have to have a job, or I’m going to be in debt really quick. And there’s that added stress that happens when you are both a full-time college student and you have to make everything work. For a lot of my close friends, there’s not a ‘you just go to college’ option for them. And that’s not an option for me either.
Do you think the system is rigged against poor people?
A: Yes. I think it sucks how much debt that I’m graduating with, I think it really sucks that I have worked a steady 30 hours since I was 16. I work so damn hard and it just feels like sometimes like I can never catch my breath.
And then I have friends that just get money from their parents like they’re piggy banks. And I would kill to have that for one month, like I would kill to have that in December, just let me have that. I would love that.
I think that the system is rigged. I think I got lucky.
I made a 25 on my ACT and that was one of the highest scores and my grade — 25 is not high at all, and I wanted to come (to OU) and take the ACT test because you can take the ACT as much as possible. And it only counts for here, but if you get a 28, I think it’s a $4,000 scholarship. I couldn’t come up here because my parents couldn’t afford the gas money — that’s three hours from my hometown.
People that live right around here, they can do that. That’s awesome, especially if you’re poor.
Another thing is my school didn’t have any ACT prep classes, and then the ACT is $50 every time you take it. And for me who has been paying a steady $400 a month every month, $50 was like kind of a lot of money and that was hard.
And then the fact is, I think in my graduating class right now, I think there’s about five of us still in college and it’s been three years. So all of them have dropped out.
You can be successful without college, but I also know that Locust Grove is extremely poor and I know that some of those people aren’t ever going to get out alive in that town. And it’s because our education system failed them.
With all of your struggles, you’re about to graduate college. What are your plans for what to do next?
A: I’ve looked into self publishing on Amazon, like filthy, little eroticas, because those are actually the most successful things. And in professional writing they tell us that we’re writing eternal books that are going to be popular forever, and erotica has a 15 day shelf life.
But the fact is, is that they really haven’t told us how to sell book yet, so that’s kind of what I’m looking to. I’m trying to start a print business. I’m trying to be authentic to myself and my needs.
I pushed off writing and pushed off art for a long time, and those are two of the most important things in my life. And I feel like I’m just now reconnecting with both of those things.
I want to be a business owner, I want to be a successful writer — if that means being a journalist, if that means being an author, if that means being an erotica writer for 50-year-old women, by God that’s what I’m gonna be.
So my immediate plans after college — I’m going to live in Tahlequah with my boyfriend. And that’s only 15 minutes away from my mom. I’m going to wait for him to graduate, which will be next year. And then I’m going to try to get into grad school for either English, or I might go to law school.
But right now I’m kind of in a mode where it’s hard to do things alone, so pairs sounds good.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.