President Sian Leah Beilock, Remarks as Delivered
Viola, thank you so much for that beautiful speech. We are truly honored that you are here.
I have to admit that following you is more than a little intimidating. But I’m going to try.
Because today is all about the Class of 2019. You are the stars of this show. You are brilliant and inspiring, and it has been a true pleasure watching you grow and evolve over the past few years.
So, congratulations! You make us really proud.
Many here today have sat right where you’re sitting. Maybe not in velvety seats in Radio City Music Hall, but in some auditorium or gym or on a lawn somewhere. And they have waited for the moment when their name is called and they shake a president’s hand and graduate from college.
Perhaps Shirley remembers her Barnard graduation 82 years ago. On June 1, 1937—the very same day that aviator Amelia Earhart took off from Miami to attempt her around-the-world flight—210 Barnard seniors attended Class Day services in the gym and then paraded in academic procession to the Columbia commencement exercises across the street.
And I imagine Sana recalls May 18, 2004, when her Commencement was held on the Barnard lawn. There was a war going on in Iraq, serious unrest throughout the world, and the speaker, writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich, didn’t mince words. “What we need,” she implored, “is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions… We need a kind of woman who isn’t trying to assimilate, but to infiltrate – and subvert. YOU can be those women. “
Clearly, these were vastly different graduations in response to vastly different times, but our graduates, Shirley and Sana, have more in common than not. In spite of a multi-decade age and experience gap, both are trailblazers, fighters, and defiers of odds. They are, as Ehrenreich noted, the kind of women who infiltrate and subvert.
It took guts (and perhaps a bit of madness) to be an aviation pioneer like Amelia Earhart. It took real confidence and a superb sense of self for Shirley to take her place in that Yale Law School class, the only woman in the room. For Cherríe to risk so much by telling the tales that matter most—the truths of her life. And for Sana to step out of the comic book shadows to create something we all needed to see.
And, of course, there’s Viola Davis, who upended the challenges of her childhood to make her own rules for success as an actor, a producer, and a humanitarian… and, in the process, to inspire us all.
It is startling and humbling to think about the collective power in this magnificent hall—brain power combined with the power of life experience. Of course, the medalists on this stage are the most remarkable group of women you can gather together in one place. Then, think about our distinguished Barnard faculty who are here to honor you and your achievements. They have taught you how to think—not what to think, but how to think—by helping you conduct research, challenging you, and working with you to understand so deeply to understand the subjects they have mastered and care about. And in return you have taught them as well. And let’s not forget your families, who laid the earliest foundation, supported and loved you and cherished you. For each of you, individually, your environment and your surroundings have given shape to your lives.
And finally, consider yourselves and your classmates. Look around you. The Class of 2019 represents cities and towns across America and countries around the world. You have achieved the heights of academic excellence in over 60 areas of study, often two or three majors at a time! And you have been leaders, club members, team players, performers, volunteers, activists, and mentors.
That is a wide net of intelligence and a broad range of different lived experiences to draw upon. And yet, I imagine that it is easy, at this moment of huge change, to forget how well equipped you all are to go out and meet the world.
In my research as a cognitive scientist, I have spent a great deal of time studying self-doubt and the things that happen when we question what we are capable of. And what I have learned is that almost everyone has a moment (sometimes many moments) when you doubt whether you’re as talented as others seem to think you are. When you wonder if you’ve managed to fool the masses.
I do some ‘me’ search in addition to research. And researchers like myself call these feelings of self-doubt the “imposter syndrome.” When people experience it, they worry that their success has come down entirely to chance—and that one day, the truth will come out and everyone will realize that they are something less than originally thought.
The other thing that research has shown is that this phenomenon of questioning your rightful place in the universe tends to happen more often to women. In 2018, a record number of women were elected to the U.S. Congress. More women were elected to company boards than ever before. And a woman won the Nobel Prize in physics for the first time in 55 years. But progress is one thing and parity is another. Even with this upward trajectory, women are far more likely to question their abilities—especially in environments where they've been historically excluded.
Take Hollywood, for example. And Yale Law School in the 1940s. And the male-dominated world of comics. And our nation as a whole.
And yet, if our medalists had let their fears about not fitting in dictate their next moves they wouldn’t be where they are today.
So what can you do to manage that self-doubt? Whether you are bound for graduate school, starting a job, spending time traveling, or still unsure of what is next, there are ways you can find ways to reassure yourselves that you authentically deserve to be where you are. There are practical things you can do. My research has shown that actually writing down your fears (it’s true… sometimes simply just acknowledging them on paper…can help them be gone from your mind. It’s like they’re less likely to pop up and distract you in the moment. It’s also the case that just remembering and reminding yourself of what you accomplished can be helpful. And of course, we should always be thinking about our setbacks and reframing them. It’s okay to fail. What are we going to change for the next time? All of these exercises can help to tamp down these neural alarm signals that tend to creep up and push us to question our abilities.
But, of course, you should also remember that you are now Barnard graduates, you have another outstanding resource. You can tap into the network of tens of thousands of stellar alumnae, and you can find support through Beyond Barnard (it’s called Beyond Barnard for a reason), because knowing you are not alone is a big part of the equation.
Some months ago I asked you describe your class in 5 words. Because you are such overachievers, you gave me 8. Here’s what you said about yourselves: we are diverse, persistent, articulate, resilient, worldly, considerate, creative, and passionate. We are all about being activists and all about community.
So please remember that impressive list.
Today, you are nerves and excitement, worry and enthusiasm, all rolled into one. But I am here to tell you… we are here to tell you… that Barnard has given you what it takes. You have the tools and the knowledge, the mentors and the advisors, along with each other -- the entire Barnard community.
Just do your thing. Whatever that might be. Look to your classmates for inspiration. Channel the boldness you see in them, in Viola and Shirley, and Cherríe and Sana. And step out as your truest selves. You are certainly capable of greatness—greatness that is in no way determined by one’s measure other than your own. You decide. Be great teachers, great volunteers, great writers and scientists, great activists, great parents and partners, and great friends.
I am delighted to know you and to have taken at least part of this journey with you.
Please have fun out there. And please bring your stories, your experiences, and your diverse perspectives on life back to campus often. We wish you well in every way.