Barnard Is the End, the Means, and the Beginning

What writer Sally Franson values most about the College is the way “it changed my vision”

By Sally Franson ’06

Illustration by Fran Murphy

About a year before I matriculated at Barnard, I sat and listened while an unshaven man with disappointed eyes told me how impossible it was to make a career out of writing—an odd thing to say, considering it was Career Day at my public high school. Luckily, I was an odd thing, too, and instead of colluding in this man’s disappointment, I crossed my arms and told him he was wrong. I don’t remember what he said back. But I do remember storming out of the classroom in a rage. That was before I understood that the best revenge when someone made me feel small was not to get mad, not even, but a hundred times bigger.

I’d already decided on Barnard when I was subjected to his advice, though Barnard had yet to decide on me. Anna Quindlen was my favorite writer, and where she went, I went. This narrow line of reasoning was the extent of my college search, which, in hindsight, seems insane. But it didn’t feel insane. It felt right, the same right as when I took my SATs and four hours blinked instantly by. I told my parents I’d pay for it myself if I had to, told my college counselor to stop giving me brochures for state schools. When I said to my friends I was going to Barnard, they said, baffled, “Barnyard?” It was not the kind of place teenagers from our sleepy old farming community went.

It didn’t occur to me until I arrived at 116th Street that attending college wasn’t the end of my ambitions to become a writer, just the beginning. But I’m glad it didn’t or I might never have gotten out of my Wisconsin hometown and through the wrought-iron gates. My years at Barnard were both everything and nothing like I expected, as I’m sure they are for everybody. When people ask me now if I liked it, I don’t know how to answer. It’s as if they’re asking if I like my eyes. How can I separate myself and assess them objectively, when they are my best and only means of seeing? I learned a million things at Barnard. But what I value most is how it changed my vision. The world became much broader once I got there, and it opened to reveal profound depths. And while it also became scarier, not once have I looked back.

I’m always delighted when I run into Barnard “girls” here and there. They’re perpetually up to the most interesting things, and when we chat, or e-mail, or direct message, a reminder of this depth and breadth zings through me. The last time this happened was the first time I went to the offices of my publisher, Random House. My editor told me there was someone who wanted to meet me. Suddenly, we were walking into Kate Medina’s office. Medina is Anna Quindlen’s editor. “It’s so nice to meet you,” Medina said, reaching out her hand. Anna’s books were everywhere around the office, including the ones I read over and over as a girl.

“I’m so glad to be here,” I finally said. “I’m so glad I’ve arrived.” 

Sally Franson is the author of A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out.