“Welcome back to Barnard” is the statement the College makes in a boldly colorful way at its annual Convocation event, which invites the entire community to celebrate the start of the new academic year. Hundreds of students, trustees, faculty, staff, distinguished guests, and alumnae gathered for this year’s traditional ceremony at the historic Riverside Church. Wearing color-coded T-shirts that represented their respective class years, current students from first-years to seniors beamed with pride and excitement while alumnae joined the assembly — from the most recent graduating class to the Class of 1947 (represented by Dorothy Rogers Dewey, pictured above far left). Robed in academic regalia and carrying class flags, 80 alumnae — including mother Carolyn Dicker ’84 and daughter Michal Dicker ’14 — processed to the cheers of new and returning students gathered in the landmark cathedral on Tuesday, September 10, 2019.
President Sian Leah Beilock spoke about the importance of connecting one’s learning and mental space to one’s body. “I want to remind you that no two minds here today contain the same body of knowledge. That's actually really thrilling to consider, and that is what being at Barnard is all about,” said President Beilock, who is a cognitive scientist. “You are a testament to the fact that there are endless ways to discover, define, and pursue your passions.”
President Beilock then talked about the benefits of taking breaks, which are essential for mental health and work productivity. “Simply put, if you want to work well in the classroom or in the library, your mind needs to reboot every once in a while.” Because rebooting requires tools, President Beilock heralded “Feel Well, Do Well @ Barnard,” a new campuswide initiative to promote physical and mental health that seeks to enhance social connectedness, while ensuring that all students have access to services in a way that best suits their needs (ergo, the tagline, “Your Wellness, Your Way”).
“This initiative is built around the idea that all members of the campus community are responsible for the health and wellness of our students — and it is that support that will empower our students to thrive, both inside and outside of the classroom,” said President Beilock.
Keynote speaker and winner of 32 Primetime Emmy Awards Sheila Nevins ’60 is the current head of MTV Studios' documentary films division, following a long career as the president of HBO Documentary Films and Family Programming. She shared an emotional chapter from her book, You Don’t Look Your Age...and Other Fairy Tales, about a time when she and her mother were lunching at a counter and Nevins failed to stand up for what she believed in. She explained that the event was a catalyst for her and for her career. “I would grow to champion stories about the less fortunate,” Nevins told the Convocation crowd. “Stories of real people. Mostly I chose to tell stories of the struggle to triumph in an uncertain and often cruel world.”
Nevins continued, “I’ve always been interested in those who need visibility, notoriety, and acceptance — anonymous victims of unfairness, deprivation, and poverty. I was determined to right my ineffectiveness at that lunch-counter visit so long ago.”
Provost and Dean of the Faculty Linda Bell invoked the message of the iconic novelist Toni Morrison, who almost 40 years ago delivered the Barnard Commencement address in which she reminded the Class of 1979 of their responsibility to use their freedom to free others. “It is our mission and our purpose,” Bell said, “to instill in you an inner strength and a natural generosity so that when you step beyond our gates, you can both pursue what inspires you and share it to good measure with the world.”
Learning from each other was the message Cheryl Milstein ’82 P’14, chair of the Barnard Board of Trustees, stressed to students. “Your varied life experiences, your backgrounds and heritage, your personal take on the world and your very own perspectives: All of these things come together — on campus and out in the city, with your roommates and professors, in your majors and through your extracurricular activities — to create the unparalleled experience we call a Barnard education,” Milstein said.
Kim Samala ’20, Student Government Association president, shared the various ways the SGA continues to make sure all students are represented, including three new roles for diversity: Vice President of Equity; Representative for Student Development; and Representative for Inclusive Initiatives. "This new constitution recognizes the need for additional leadership among an increasingly diverse student body,” said Samala. “My hope is that through SGA, we will foster an inclusive Barnard that speaks to us all."
Denise M. Augustin P’07, ’15, who is a bookkeeper in Barnard’s finance office, will reach a 32-year milestone working at the College in November 2019. A parent of two alumnae, Augustin delivered the staff greeting and said, “To the returning students and the first-years — the newest members on our Team — do note that you have the best coaches at Barnard, and therefore you will become your dream.”
Students shared their excitement while walking in groups to Riverside Church. Alexa Hirsch ’23, who is originally from Los Angeles, said that as a Jewish Theological Seminary double-degree student, Barnard was the only school in the country for her to attend. “I saw this place as a perfect opportunity to graduate with two bachelor degrees, at the same time, to study exactly what I wanted to study and personalize exactly what I wanted to do.”
Zara Tayebjee ’23, who is from Nairobi, Kenya, and grew up in Maryland, described what she was most looking forward to at Convocation. “I hear there are some great speakers," she said. "I heard President Beilock speak when she welcomed all the first years and I can’t wait to hear her speak again because she’s so inspiring”.
Economics major and Athena Scholar Lilly Kallman ‘20 paused on her way into the ceremony to share some advice for first-years: Be patient with yourself, try not to compare your experiences with other students’, and embrace your unique experiences instead. Architectural major Rachel Fischer ’20, who is also a double-degree Jewish Theological Seminary major, advised first years to say yes to things and to stay true to oneself.
The ceremony concluded with a procession outside of the church where faculty formed a tunnel under which alumnae and current students walked back toward campus, capping an inspiring evening celebration to welcome the 2019-2020 school year.
For a look back at last year’s Convocation, click here.