Born in the former Soviet Union, Stella Sytnik moved to Voorhees Township with the hopes of improving the lives of those around her, and has done just that
What many refer to as the American Dream can often be described in different ways, depending on whom you ask. It can entail creating a better life for your children, opening a small business to work for yourself, maybe even becoming a rich and famous celebrity, or so many more possibilities.
Stella Sytnik of Voorhees viewed the opportunity to come to the United States a little bit differently.
Sytnik was one of 18 Camden County residents honored for their contributions to improving the community at the 2019 Camden County Freedom Medal ceremony on Jan. 23. The award is presented annually since 2001 to civic leaders who demonstrate the ideals and actions that reflect the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, a former republic of the Soviet Union, Sytnik lived half her life overseas before moving to the United States in 1990 and coming to Voorhees a few years later.
She believes her experiences in her native former communist country before moving to the United States helped shape who she is and her passion to want to bring people together.
“I believe that those experiences gave me some kind of a wisdom, and this is something that I want to pass on,” Sytnik said.
Having lived in the United States for nearly 30 years, she has had the privilege to serve on numerous boards in local government, including the Voorhees Township Planning and Economic Development Board, the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority Board, the Camden County Cultural Heritage and Historic Preservation Commission, and perhaps most notably, as the founding president and CEO of the Voorhees Cultural Diversity Foundation.
Outside of her numerous government roles, she has also taught ESL to international students at Camden County College as an adjunct professor. Recently, she was appointed chair of the newly formed Camden County Cultural Awareness Commission, hoping to carry out the mission of diversifying thought and progress throughout the 37 municipalities in Camden County.
“My message is one of empowerment through love and cultural awareness and cultural education,” Sytnik said. “That’s what I kind of feel my legacy should be.”
She brings years of business experience and work with immigrants and United States citizens alike to this new commission that will strive to promote the different cultures that make up the local community.
“Awareness is knowledge and knowledge is power,” Sytnik said. “So I think the more that we know about each other, the more we learn through educational programs, the more we empower every resident in this county to bring in their best. It’s the best way to make people feel dignified and respected.”
Having grown up in Azerbaijan, Sytnik says she always saw the United States as her future landing spot because of its possibilities and the opportunities it offers its people.
“I know that I came here because of the democratic values that are very near to me, because I wanted my children to grow up in a country where they can make up their minds and choose what they want to do,” Sytnik said. “I wanted to be sure that there was freedom of speech and will and just choices.”
“That’s why I made this sort of leap of faith and I left everything behind,” Sytnik added. “It’s sort of the traditional immigration story, except it’s not the story of my grandparents or my parents, it’s my personal story.”
Sytnik has made a large impact on the community, warranting her being awarded a 2019 Camden County Freedom Medal for her part in helping to improve the lives of fellow county residents.
However, she doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon, as she says the medal will help her to move faster than before.
“I love this country, and I’m very proud being a citizen and would never, ever make any other choice,” Sytnik said. “But that’s not to say that I’m not concerned with different things happening right now (in the country).”
She hopes to strive to be able to help more than ever before now, especially after recent events over the past few years regarding anti-immigration talk around the country.
“I always felt like if I can help one person that my life mission is complete, but I think that I’ve done a little more than that, and the medal is a testament to that and makes me realize I’ve been doing the right thing,” Sytnik said.
“To me, this means that I can do more, and I will continue searching for ways to make this world a better place,” Sytnik added.