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Transcript and video of Academic Reflection by Daniele Lerner

Barnard College Commencement
Monday, May 14, 2012
New York City

Photo: David Wentworth/Barnard College

Mr. President, I cannot help myself but to say that your presence here today is thrilling for all of us. Thank you. [Applause.]

President Spar, trustees, my dear and distinguished professors, honorees, esteemed guests, family and friends, my name is Daniele Lerner and these are my academic reflections.

Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-Glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it!

Alice in Lewis Caroll’s, “Through the Looking-Glass.”

When this graduating class first crossed the threshold of Barnard, “we” inspired by our own curiosity faced everything that was unknown and mysterious to us.   We were all Alice…young, courageous, maybe weary but outside the experience. 

As an Anthropology major, who was [applause] pre-med, my education at Barnard [applause] has been at the nexus of science and humanities. I have learned in physics that when light hits a mirror, it reflects off the surface. Depending on the focal point and the location of the object, a virtual or real image is created. But in English, I learned that an image holds something deeper.  Both sides of my education have taught me to value human life and spirit above all. Whether studying the brain in biology or the soul in Plato.

Walking into my first Organic Chemistry class, aware that I was about to engage material with a notorious reputation, I was a bit more than apprehensive.  At the top of my syllabus was a quotation from Lewis Carroll:

“How would you like to live in Looking-Glass House, Kitty?  I wonder if they’d give you milk there.  Perhaps Looking-Glass milk isn’t good to drink.”

I glanced at the words then shifted to the test dates. Molecular orbitals, alkene and alkyne reactions and other chemical terms quickly became my new vocabulary and my biggest fear, part of my routine. On the second exam at the last question, I was shocked – there, unexpectedly, was the Louis Carroll quotation that had seemed irrelevant on that first day. I had read those words eight weeks before but that one reference in literature could be a key to understanding the chemical concept of enantiomers, non-super imposable mirror images [applause] changed everything. [Laughter.]

Suddenly, the mundane became the significant in that exuberant and coherent moment, the two worlds – science and humanities – passed through me. I was the “Looking-Glass.” My education coalesced and I became one with my learning. Every Barnard woman has experienced such moments. Giving rise to our achievements, our aspirations and our profound intellectual commitment. 

In all courses at Barnard, we learn attentiveness, listening, watching and above all, noticing.  Stepping out of ourselves to hear what the world is telling us.  Much is unfamiliar – is on the other side of the looking glass. 

To engage with it, you must ask questions. Alice asked Kitty, Socrates asked Glaucon, the creature asked Frankenstein. Conrad, Freud, Einstein, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf – all asked us, ultimately, who we are. These questions are the richest and they live at Barnard in every course; from music to anthropology to chemistry. The significance of the Liberal Arts emerges in experiences like my chemistry exam. The sheer beauty of the world of literature, super-imposed on the sheer beauty of the organic world.   

My fellow-graduates, this is our adventure. We never know when the pieces of the puzzle will come together. When the reflection on the other side of the mirror will transform our understanding. Here at Barnard, we have all rotated and shifted in so many ways that we have become like an excited electron that leaps out of its shell and does not return.  [Applause.]

Alice asked the critical question and so must we. The mirror is not only on Alice’s literary mantel piece but also in the laboratory, in the microscope and the telescope. We came to Barnard as explorers, our professors have taught us to steer towards horizons that will move with us. If we trust that knowledge and ourselves, we will have learned the greatest of lessons housed in this academy of wisdom that we are the looking glass.  That we are the prism between the families we come from and the families we will make, and from which light will break into the country we hold dear, into the world we will change. [Applause.]