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Sonya Barclay remembered by colleagues

Sonya Barclay, a recent Ph.D. graduate from Carnegie Mellon, died of cancer Dec. 25 at Presbyterian Hospital. Barclay, 49, received her Ph.D. in history last spring.

Barclay did not pursue the common path in life. She devoted herself to taking care of her sick parents for much of her adulthood, putting off her aspirations of obtaining a college degree until she was in her 30s.

Barclay earned her degree in history from Indiana University of Pennsylvania before coming to Carnegie Mellon.

“When she got to Carnegie Mellon, her first year or two in graduate school were very difficult and very rough,” said Scott Sandage, an associate professor in history and one of Barclay’s advisers. “Five of the six students that came in with her didn’t stay past the first year.”

Barclay, however, was not discouraged. She continued her study of history to the end, despite many hurdles placed in her way.

“Sonya was the bravest person that I ever knew, and that had more to do with the way she lived than the way she died.… The reason that I think Sonya was so brave was that she was the first person in her family to go to college, and many people her hometown and her family circle didn’t understand why she wanted to go to college at all,” Sandage said.

Nothing could stop Barclay from following her dream, though, and receiving her degree last May was the culmination of years of hard work and waiting.

After graduation, Barclay began a job at her undergraduate alma mater as a history professor while continuing to teach her course, “American Countryside: A Survey of Rural America,” at Carnegie Mellon.

“She was a genuine rural American, from Indiana County, Pa. It seemed to me most remarkable that she was able to engage CMU undergraduates — who must be the least rural student body in the U.S. — in the subject.

But she did,” said David Miller, one of Barclay’s teachers and a reader for her dissertation.

Others agree that Barclay’s ability to engage her students — especially in rural American history — was remarkable.

Paul Eiss, an associate professor of history, said, “I remember her walking off to class, carrying farm implements like a butter churn, or a scythe, or any number of other things that I can’t even identify, looking forward to yet another class in which she would use those objects to make rural history vivid and vital to her students.”

Everyone that came into contact with Barclay seems to view her as a talented, committed, and remarkable person, as well as a thoughtful and engaging student and teacher. “She was a determined and creative scholar, as well as a generous one,” said Diane Shaw, an associate professor of architecture and reader of Barclay’s dissertation. “More than that, Sonya genuinely cared about people and had a knack for making us feel special, and that’s why we will miss her so.”

Barclay’s interactions with friend and fellow history Ph.D. candidate Ruth Kittner reflect this as well.

“When I was in Germany, conducting research for my dissertation, she visited my elderly mother nearly every week. I know my mother appreciated her regular visits, hearing about CMU, Sonya’s students, life in the department, and Sonya’s many adventures searching Indiana County for old barns and houses,” she said. “I will miss her far more than I can appreciate now.”

As a teacher, Barclay was dedicated and compassionate, Kittner said. “She cared deeply for her students. She would spend hours reviewing student papers, for example, commenting, suggesting revisions, praising, and encouraging.”

“The other thing I have gathered about Sonya is that she had built up a devoted following among undergraduate students,” Sandage said. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect that a non-traditional student like Sonya from a farming background in a very rural part of Pennsylvania would become a role model for Carnegie Mellon students, and my understanding is that she did, and that undergraduate students really admired her in addition to feeling like they learned a lot from her.”

An on-campus memorial is being planned for Barclay. For more information regarding the date, time, and location of the memorial, contact Scott Sandage (sandage@andrew.cmu.edu).