Lessons in Resilience

Barnard alumnae share how they learned to cope and forge ahead in times of crisis

By Mary Cunningham

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More than nine months after the first reported case in the U.S., COVID-19 is still present, dictating our movements and altering our everyday routines. It has upended our lives in ways unimaginable to us just last year. While the pandemic is certainly unique compared with other crises we have faced in our lifetimes, it’s made us wonder how Barnard women and others who came before us have grappled with traumatic events. Barnard alumnae have navigated some of history’s most challenging moments, from world wars and the Great Depression to the polio epidemic and the September 11 attacks. How did those generations of women persevere despite enduring so much hardship?

“Finding a way to survive, make do, and make our way through — that certainly seems like a central aspect of human functioning,” explains Colin Wayne Leach, a psychology and Africana studies professor at Barnard and Columbia, who recently co-authored the chapter “Sentiments of the Dispossessed: Emotions of Resilience and Resistance” in the forthcoming book Routledge Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination (December 2020). Leach notes that we all experience difficulty in some form or another throughout life, but the ways in which we cope are not uniform. For some people, a life-altering experience may become central to who they are, while others may never want to talk about it again. “There is no one good way to cope,” Leach says.

Whether we identify our own form of coping as resilience, survival, or something else all together, it is clear that the ability to forge ahead is central to our existence as human beings. “We’re incredibly resilient and adaptable creatures,” says Leach. Barnard alumnae are no exception — they have demonstrated incredible fortitude and resilience, deploying various coping mechanisms to confront adversity head-on.

Normalcy Through Routine

From transitioning to remote work to adjusting to new health and safety measures, the COVID-19 pandemic has dismantled the structure that undergirds our daily lives. Establishing routines, Leach says, is essential in creating a sense of normalcy. “So many of us are out of routine. We don’t have a set time to get up. Many of us don’t deal well with that. We need a little structure. [We need to] give ourselves a routine to replace the one that we lost in the daily rhythms of life.”

For many Barnard alumnae, like Heather Ohaneson ’03, having a routine has been essential to managing life’s upheavals. Ohaneson was a junior at Barnard on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers. She has somewhat nebulous recollections of that day and the days that followed. “I was supposed to give my first campus tour that morning. I went into the office in Milbank, and I was with people in the office as we were watching TV and everything was unfolding.”

In response to the tragedy, classes were canceled for the day. An assembly was held on Lehman Lawn (now Futter Field) in addition to an ecumenical prayer service at St. Paul’s Chapel on Columbia’s campus. The community also came together for candlelight vigils and other small gatherings in residence halls and classrooms. The College decided to resume classes the following day, with the understanding that not all students would be prepared to return. Judith Shapiro, Barnard’s president at the time, wrote an email to Barnard families to explain the College’s reasoning: “We have resumed classes today at the College to provide a helpful structure to the day.”

Ohaneson says that while some of her assignments felt pointless at the time, the prompt return to classes was a healthy and wise decision made by the College. “[Classes are] what anchor the community. It’s an educational institution, so you’re supposed to have the courses and provide that ongoing stability. I think [resuming courses was] maybe the best thing the College could have done.”

During the HIV/AIDS crisis, routine was also fundamental for Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum ’81 and the congregation she has led for nearly three decades, New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the largest LGBTQ congregation in the world. She arrived at CBST to serve as the synagogue’s first rabbi and staff member at the height of the epidemic in 1992. Kleinbaum says the congregation lost 40% of its members to AIDS between 1981 and 1998. “It was a devastating epidemic that decimated the gay community in all of the cities in the United States, and around the world of course.”

Whether we identify our own form of coping as resilience, survival, or something else all together, it is clear that the ability to forge ahead is central to our existence as human beings. 'We’re incredibly resilient and adaptable creatures,' says Leach. Barnard alumnae are no exception — they have demonstrated incredible fortitude and resilience, deploying various coping mechanisms to confront adversity head-on.

Amid much tragic loss, Kleinbaum made a serious effort to maintain a sense of joy and normalcy by planning set events that the congregation could look forward to. “On Friday nights, we would gather for our main service every week, and there was a commitment in the space and the heart of the synagogue to not turn every time we gathered into a memorial service,” she says. “It was really important that we would still sing, and have joy, and laugh, and create culture, and enjoy the arts.”

Support and Solidarity

Human connection can be a powerful tool to combat life’s biggest challenges. Even the support of strangers can help lighten the burden we’re collectively carrying — look no further than the 7 p.m. clapping and cheering for essential workers that reverberated throughout New York City’s streets each night this past spring. And then there’s the more intimate expression of support between co-workers, friends, and family members that take place in person or, now, during the pandemic, on FaceTime, Zoom, and other digital platforms. This sense of human connection was certainly key for Connie Brown Demb ’63, who lived through the polio epidemic in the late ’40s and early ’50s, before the development of the Salk vaccine. A child at the time, Brown Demb remembers being confined to her family’s apartment, something very familiar to all of us in the era of COVID-19. While there was no official mandate to do so, Brown Demb’s parents kept her home one summer as an added measure of caution. “There was a strange sense of having lots of friends, and having fun during the school year, and then suddenly being isolated and reading books,” she says. 

During this crisis, and others she’s witnessed in history, Brown Demb says she emulated the resilience of her parents, the children of eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. just before the First World War. “They always made me feel protected and able to achieve. No matter what was happening in the world, I had that inner strength that I could do something to make the world better. And [the sense] that my own survival was not an issue.” Reflecting now on how the pandemic has affected her, she admits that it can sometimes get her down but says that her family keeps her grounded. “I’m happy that I have my husband here with me. He’s stalwart. He keeps me from getting too depressed. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s a model of resilience.”

Rabbi Kleinbaum witnessed firsthand the power of community support when CBST implemented a buddy system for those in the congregation affected by HIV/AIDS. “Three to five people would ‘adopt’ somebody who was in the sicker stages, the stages of needing more help,” she explains. Those people would help with shopping, medical appointments, and advocate for the affected individual.

“[There’s] real power in people showing up for each other. In that period of AIDS, everybody in the community was either sick or dying or taking care of someone who was sick or dying, or mourning someone, or worrying that they were going to get sick. It affected all of us in some deep and profound way,” says Kleinbaum.

A strong sense of community could also be felt in the wake of 9/11. Ohaneson recalls walking around New York City and seeing memorials erected in various sections of the streets: “I remember the candles and the makeshift vigils that were set up in front of every firehouse.” There were also posters — designed by Milton Glaser, who’d created the original “I ♥ New York” logo in 1976 — hung up throughout the city that caught Ohaneson’s eye. “I remember these posters that were everywhere that [said] ‘I ♥ New York More Than Ever.’ ... That messaging really mattered to me in some way.”

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Taking Action

One of the keys to coping with crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, Leach contends, is to be brutally honest with ourselves, assess our needs, and take action. He applauds the creative efforts people are currently engaging in to connect with one another, such as virtual dinner hours and book clubs on Zoom.They are an example of “people identifying what they need and then finding some resource, or creating it and then putting it to use to give them the thing that they need,” he says. Throughout history, Barnard women have found strength and purpose in social activism and community service. This very can-do attitude was illustrated during the Spanish flu epidemic when students offered a helping hand by bringing food to those who were ill. In a 1918 Barnard Bulletin article, “Have You An Auto?,” the writer puts out a query to fellow students for vehicles and drivers to help facilitate food delivery to the sick, and calls on peers to get involved: “If you live at Brooksor Furnald offer your services to help carry the broth by hand. If you have not found anything to do yet, here is your chance. ... In the crisis, let there be no Barnard girl wondering about asking, ‘What can I do?’”

Time and again, Barnard alumnae have been responsive in moments of need. They’ve learned that it is important to move forward and to push back when necessary. “I guess you’d say I was raised [with], and Barnard reinforced, the idea that you can do something,” says Brown Demb. “You don’t have to sit back and take it. Or turn your back on suffering or problems.”

Similar to Brown Demb, Rabbi Kleinbaum believes that we should not let today’s circumstances deter us from being proactive. “Suffering does not necessarily defeat us. It did not defeat our ancestors, and it doesn’t have to defeat us,” she says. “Of course we’re going to get knocked down. The question is how long until you get back up again.”

Latest IssueFall 2020

In this issue, you'll read about the alumnae healthcare workers who served on the frontlines of the pandemic, Barnard women's resilience during historic crises, a personal story on protest, the 19th Amendment reexamined, and more.