On this day as we look to our futures, the past is equally present. We celebrate this day simultaneously with classmates and with our friends and family from our pre-Barnard days, in many cases sharing Barnard with them for the first time on our last day here. Instant nostalgia creeps in; this moment already feeling like a memory. Today, as the promise of our past is realized through our promising futures, I’m thinking about something that my mother always used to say to me. When I was younger, my mom would tell me, “When I grow up, I want to be Sarah Besnoff.”
As a child, I thought this was the silliest thing. First, your mom is the oldest person you know, so you really can’t imagine her “growing up” any older. Secondly, how could my mom want to grow up to be me when I so desperately wanted to become like her? As a child, I would dismiss this statement as something my mom told me to make me laugh. As a teenager, I thought she said it just to empower me. Now, I understand that it was more than that; it was a reminder that I have been given opportunities that she never had. The love and support of my mother and my father, and their parents before them, have given me more chances for high achievement and greater access to places and people than they ever had. Barnard is the opportunity that I have been given. And today is the day that I grow up and celebrate Barnard making me that woman my mom said she wanted to be.
The opportunity to be a college graduate is one not everyone can attain—and one that you have all earned. We have been taught by the most distinguished professors while living in the greatest city on earth. We have been surrounded by a supportive administration, a dedicated staff, and a board of trustees that actually listens. Of course this experience at Barnard was fraught with challenges: from the giant hole in the middle of our campus that made us redefine what “community” at Barnard meant to the daily reality that being a student at a women’s college continues, surprisingly, to unnerve some of our male and even female colleagues at Columbia; from papers that took more than the one night you allotted them to the relationships that ended quicker than you had hoped. The hardest challenge, though, was always how to choose what to do: so many interesting classes to take, too many internships, every student organization imaginable. The challenge of too many options is also one that plagues us upon graduation: grad schools, nonprofit or private-sector jobs, eventually the choice of raising a family. It is this culture of choice that is our generation’s unique opportunity, a blessing that our mothers were not given in equal measure.
We have been the given the opportunity of choice. And it is in this culture of choice that an amazing thing happens at Barnard; we forge a sisterhood. Not a clichéd one of traveling pants but a true example of what it means to better yourself by working with others. The greatest opportunity of being a Barnard woman is the chance to be surrounded by the most intelligent, diverse, passionate women. The strength of Barnard is its students, the women who motivate their classmates and professors alike. Each of you is going to go far and our collective impact on the world is going to be so great that across the street they’re finally going to have to add new books to the Core.
So when two roads diverge in a yellow wood and I’m sorry I can’t travel both—I’m not concerned. I know my Barnard sister who chooses to take the other road will call me and tell me what she saw, who to avoid, where to turn and what lies at the end. Her distinct path will not be divergent from mine, rather it will add to the map of our joint experience. She will empower me with knowledge should I ever want to take that path too. She will share her time on that road with me should I never be able to travel it myself. Our sisterhood in this culture of choice allows us all to become trailblazers without fear of the roads not traveled.
And with this sisterhood of trailblazers, we are uniquely positioned to take on the continuing inequalities that women face in our society. We can each forge new paths to equality, calling our sisters along the way to find unexpected intersections. We can be pioneers as we reassert a gender consciousness within our generation. This is the Barnard sisterhood—supportive, collaborative, competitive, sure, but conducive to our collective achievement. We need to create this Barnard sisterhood with all women and male allies, so that we can turn assumed equality into actual parity. We stand here today with a woman who put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. Well, we, the Barnard College Class of 2009, have been given the opportunity to break the damn thing.
So when I grow up, I want to be the Barnard graduate traveling to the Mississippi Delta to teach with Teach for America. I want to grow up to be the international student from Brazil who bravely traveled all the way here and made Barnard her home through tireless involvement in student life. I want to grow up to be the premedical student who successfully managed difficult requirements and the Nine Ways of Knowing. I want to grow up to be the student who led clubs from Bacchantae to BOSS, Alpha Chi to USCC. And I want to grow up to be the student who spent her years interning at fabulous jobs and exploring the city. And because of Barnard, I do get to experience each of these paths through our sisterhood that only grows as we become Barnard alumnae today.
So Mom, if you’re still interested in being me when you grow up, I’m proud to present to you: your future. Because when I grow up, I want to be each and every one of the graduates of the Barnard College Class of 2009. And with my speech already a memory, I salute my sisters on our strong and beautiful futures. Congratulations.
-Sara Besnoff '09, illustration by Katherine Streeter