President Sian Leah Beilock, Remarks as Delivered
Live in Minor Latham Playhouse
Congratulations, Barnard Class of 2021!
I’ve been thinking a long time about what to say to you at the end of this challenging and unprecedented, yet – I know – at least a little bit hopeful year.
What could I possibly leave you with that would stand out, that you haven’t already heard a hundred times, that would acknowledge the pandemic and its impact on your senior year without pulling attention away from you and your incredible accomplishments?
So I did what I often do. I considered the challenge in light of my training in cognitive science and my research on confronting pressure, fear, and performance anxiety.
I also thought back to my own undergraduate days and how I got over my own anxiety. Of course, I certainly didn’t have to live through a global pandemic. But, when it comes down to it, we know from psychological and neuroscience research that the best strategies to use when facing your fears don’t change all that much, regardless of the cause or degree of that fear.
Here’s an example.
When I was in college, I felt very intimidated by my computer science courses. I remember one especially stressful all-nighter I pulled in the computer lab trying to figure out how to program a new programming language. I was one of the two women in my class, surrounded by 40 or so guys who all at least acted like they completely knew what they were doing.
At one particularly low point in the evening, I called my mom on the pay phone in the computer lab (yeah, seriously — no one had a cell phone yet!) and teared up when she asked me how I was doing. I was ready to quit and change majors – because my cognitive science major required an entire year of programming in LISP (which is now, by the way, a pretty much dead language because it is so frustrating!). I told myself, “Well, this is hopeless,” and I thought about giving up.
But in the end, I didn’t give up. I stuck it out. I worked it out. And by dawn, I had taught myself at least the basics of that programming language.
But the most important language I learned that night – and the one that has really stuck – was the language of confidence, of being able to tell myself, in any circumstance, under any sort of pressure, no matter how exhausted I am: “I’ve conquered my fears before. I’ve done what I thought was impossible. And I can do it again.”
So that’s my long preamble to saying: This year has tested us, again and again, myself included, by throwing the unimaginable in our faces, and compelling us to – one way or another – figure it out. And it’s taught us not only that we all have the ability to figure it out when we dig in hard enough – but that the practice of performing under pressure makes us stronger.
I have little doubt that because of this, you – the extraordinary Class of 2021 – are the strongest class Barnard has ever sent out into this world.
Let’s face it. None of us expected a year like this, and none of us wanted a graduation like this. Trust me, I would give anything to be speaking to you in person right now – not only because I miss you and want to celebrate together, but because I am Exhibit A for the concept of social facilitation – I perform so much better when I’m in the physical presence of others. (And that’s why I’m so grateful to see so many of our graduates’ faces on the large screens in front of me. You’re helping me perform at my best.)
But the unexpected pressure — and the exhaustion that comes with it — that you’ve had to face is of a different nature than mine. Mine comes with the job. You have had to contend with getting through what would already have been amongst the most pressure-filled years of your lives while being bombarded with challenges that none of us had ever faced before, and that really seemed to change day by day.
And I know that, for some of you, those new challenges were more than pressures. No one was immune to the pandemic’s worst outcomes, and the Barnard family was not free from personal tragedies and the loss of loved ones. To those of you who faced such loss and are nevertheless graduating with your class today – I salute you with the deepest condolences, warmth, admiration, and respect.
For all of today’s graduates, in so many ways, the past year has taught us that some fears cannot be avoided. I could have walked away from the computer lab that night and said, forget it, I give up. I could have switched majors. I’m forever proud and grateful that I didn’t do any of those things – but the choice was there.
But none of us could drop out of COVID.
And the constant uncertainty and dreadful unknowns it wrought have real effects on the brain. As Christiane so eloquently reminded us, even if you’re an optimist by nature, it’s hard to imagine a glass half full when the foundations of the glass itself seem to be cracking and its contents slowly evaporating.
And still, you dug in hard and managed to do it. You found ways to seal the glass and preserve all the hope, the activism, the humanity, and even the fun inside it, especially when the contents of the glass were sloshing around more than usual. Reshaping elements of your world, you insisted on a larger glass – new courses, new activities, new forms of connection and outreach that tackled head-on critical questions like: “How can we make meaning of this? What are its effects on the most vulnerable and most underserved? How do we prepare for what comes next?”
You found space to retreat to the empty half of the glass when you needed to catch your breath and restore yourselves – and that’s okay. Sometimes you stayed there for a while but got a toe wet, sometimes you dived straight in and soaked yourselves to the bone. Feeling, reacting to, and making the most of all the contradictions, even at the same time, is what made this year so exhausting – and also so, so transformative for you, at least from where I’m standing.
You have prevailed – in studies and research, in leadership and mentorship, in community care and social justice – at times when you had every reason not to. You were spent. Sometimes you were numb. But you stayed up all night – all year in fact – and conquered it.
Your story is without compare. Whenever you find yourself afraid or in doubt of your abilities, just tell yourselves the story of the Barnard Class of 2021 and your part in it. Tell it to your friends, your parents, and one day, perhaps, to your children.
I have to admit I struggled with this speech because I really wanted to avoid clichés, this year above all others. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe the biggest cliché of all – that “You can do anything you set your mind to” – has never been more appropriate. Because you’ve already done it.
It may be my job to inspire you, but really, you’ve inspired us. You’ve shown us that we – the Barnard community – can do anything. Thank you for allowing us to envision a greatness and success beyond what we could imagine before… and I’m thrilled to think of what you’ll accomplish next.
Congratulations, graduates! You did it!