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Empathy in Action

By President Sian Leah Beilock

President Sian Beilock

Three years ago, I had the great privilege of experiencing my first Barnard Convocation. It was — as I described in my letter then — a “watershed moment” because it brought into focus the very essence of what Barnard is about: a community defined by intellectual curiosity, the lively exchange of ideas, and the drive to make a positive impact on the world.

While this year’s virtual Convocation looked quite different, I felt equally inspired as I listened to alumnae, colleagues, and students give a warm welcome to the newest members of our student body. As I addressed the College from Futter Field, I was reminded of Barnard’s strength and resilience. Even in the face of this year’s historic challenges, we came together to carry on this powerful tradition — energized and ready to usher in the College’s 131st academic year.

Joining us as keynote speaker was investigative journalist and award-winning author Suki Kim ’92, who shared her insights and personal experiences to help frame this unique moment in time. In her writing, she exposes inequities and uncovers injustices. Activism is at the heart of her work. But in her remarks, she touched on something that’s also essential, especially now: empathy. Her message was clear and straightforward: “Empathy means embracing love as the starting point of facing your challenge,” she said.

Over the past nine months, I’ve seen how empathy and activism go hand in hand. As we grapple with a global pandemic, economic hardships, and the pains caused by systemic racism, there have been countless stories of how Barnard women have stepped up to help and serve their communities. In this issue’s “Barnard’s Faces of the Frontlines,” you’ll read about Ivy Vega ’15, an occupational therapist, whose daily routine changed when the coronavirus peaked in New York City: She had to quickly pivot from providing long-term treatment to assisting colleagues caring for COVID-19 patients in critical condition. The work was demanding, but her time at Barnard, she said, gave her the tools to adapt nimbly to unforeseen circumstances.

The students in our incoming Class of 2024 have demonstrated the same enterprising spirit. Audrey McNeal ’24, for instance, made history in Georgia as the youngest person from her district to become a delegate for the Democratic National Convention. McNeal’s passion for the political process mobilized her to do her part in one of the most significant elections of our time.

Our faculty has also been incredibly thoughtful in creating a curriculum that probes the global and national crises we face today while inviting students to be active participants in tackling these challenges within their communities. In Professor Premilla Nadasen’s seminar COVID-19 and Care Work: An Oral History Approach, students will conduct oral histories of essential workers and learn about who they are, what their experiences have been like, and the risks they shoulder. When COVID-19 forced us to social distance this past spring, many of our own staff, from custodians to IT specialists, continued to come to campus to do their jobs. Thanks to their dedication and hard work, the College was able to thrive as we transitioned to remote learning.

These members of Barnard — like so many of you — have shown a keen ability to employ their talents to lead and care for others, calling to mind these words of the late Supreme Court justice and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, CLS ’59: “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself.” At Barnard, each day, I am fortunate to witness a community of true professionals in action.

Latest IssueWinter 2023