Redefining Extraordinary

By Amy Veltman ’89

Photograph of Amy Veltman

Back when I was a student at Barnard, Christine Royer — beloved, longtime Barnard professor and administrator — occasionally invited me to sit on panels for prospective students. While my memories of these occasions are fuzzy, I remember that, as she introduced me, I always felt a small sting when Christine Royer described me and my Barnard experience as “typical.” I did not want to be “typical”! I was going for “special” or perhaps “extraordinary.” And on top of that, I didn’t even understand how that word — which I lumped together with “average” and “fine” — could describe me. I was the sole Oregonian in my class, and surely nobody else was as haunted by their mother’s shoulds and shouldn’ts from so many miles away!

However, I adored Christine Royer, and I knew she must have had a good reason to present me this way — even though I’d struggled to get used to the city, independence, and calibrating what was too little, enough, and too much of just about everything. (Oh! Now I get it!)

Over the past year, I’ve learned that aspects of my experience have continued to be more typical than I would have guessed. While there are many moments in my career(s) I’m proud of, I’ve also made many choices that I never imagined an ambitious Barnard student striving for “extraordinary” would ever make.

For instance, I left work that I loved to help my husband pursue a career that would be meaningful for him and help others. Putting aside my own ambitions for my husband’s in the 2000s? Not what I thought of as typically Barnard. Later, when I had an opportunity to step back from work to help my family during a difficult stretch, I took it but felt the need to justify the decision. Why couldn’t I do it all excellently at the same time?

Last year, I attended several Alumnae Circles uniting alumnae and students from all over the world. Occasionally, we spent the time simply sharing our stories. I was surprised to learn that, while the specifics differed, almost all the alumnae, across generations, had paths that were (extremely) nonlinear, sometimes veering for family or taking other unexpected pivots due to factors beyond their control. What a relief it was to find out that the feature of my experience that I wanted to edit out of my story was in fact quite “typical.” And yet, I found all the alumnae (and students!) I met on these Zooms extraordinary.

Oh! Now I get it! “Typical” and “extraordinary” can coexist — and they often do for those who have spent time at Barnard.

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