Photograph by Dorothy Hong
When Caroline Bliss Spencer ’09 craves a taste of college, she hops on the 2 or 3 train and travels from her Tribeca home to Morningside Heights, where she might grab a B.E.L.T. sandwich (bacon, egg, lettuce, and tomato) at Community Food & Juice on Broadway, or pop into one of her other favorite eateries.
Unlike some recent graduates, however, Spencer has cultivated more extensive ties to Barnard than an occasional nostalgic meal uptown. As chair of Gala Nights, a fundraiser focused on young alumnae, Spencer—who works in private wealth management at Goldman Sachs—has helped raise more than $40,000 for student scholarships this past year alone. The two-year-old event at the Plaza Hotel is an after-party of dancing that follows the more traditional Annual Gala, which raised close to $2.3 million this year for scholarships. Gala Nights brings together recent graduates and friends for the social event, which Spencer describes as reminiscent of “senior week, but for grownups.”
If Spencer and a group of recent alumnae are successful, Gala Nights may be the first episode in a larger story. Together with Ashley Walker Bush ’11 and Alannah Arguelles Chang ’08, Spencer is working to construct a base of young alumnae like herself, eager to continue their involvement with Barnard, and also to support the College. “I think there’s such a great opportunity to grow a community among the alumnae and make it feel like a continuation of school,” says Chang, a buyer for Bloomingdale’s, who previously worked as a beauty associate at Vanity Fair, and is pregnant with her first child. She believes the Barnard network will nourish and support recent graduates, adding, “Part of going down this road is giving back to the school.”
Bush, a documentary filmmaker who is also the granddaughter of the first President Bush and niece of the second one, worked as a research assistant to President Debora Spar during the year following her graduation. Bush marvels at the way graduates benefit from “the influx of amazing Barnard alumnae who open their arms wide,” but acknowledges that it can be “hard for young alumnae to write a check when they are trying to figure out how to pay for the rent and groceries.”
For their next project, the trio plans to raise money and awareness for the newly established Karen Blank Scholarship Fund, which will provide financial aid to Barnard students who have demonstrated strong academic performance as well as dedication to improving a community—campus, local, or international. The fund celebrates Dean of Studies Karen Blank, who recently retired after serving the Barnard and Columbia communities for 28 years, in roles that included dean of studies, chair of the faculty committee on programs and academic standing, and honor board advisor at Barnard.
The fund has already piqued the interest of at least one young alumna. Emma Siesfeld ’10, who works for Teach For America in Massachusetts training special-education teachers, credits Dean Blank for encouraging her to take on leadership roles in student activities and to pursue her interest in studying economics. She recalls that the dean urged her to take classes outside her comfort zone. When Siesfeld learned about efforts to honor Dean Blank, she contacted President Spar, volunteering to engage young alumnae to build upon the scholarship, which was established last fall with a major gift from an anonymous donor.
The Blank initiative, and others that follow, will no doubt benefit from the energy and tenacity of Caroline Spencer whose approach is to send out blast e-mails to everyone she knows as well as individual ones. Before the first Gala Nights in April 2012, Spencer recalls a case of nerves as she sat with fiancé, Tom Spanos, at the dinner that precedes the after-party. But, as the dinner was winding down, she began to hear the strains of the DJ’s music. And when she entered the party space, catered that year with an assortment of sweets from Dylan’s Candy Bar, it was “already packed with 20- and 30-year olds”—women as well as men, and Barnard alums as well as those without a direct affiliation.
For Spencer and her peers, the gift of a Barnard education is not just a fresh and fond memory, but one whose benefits they are continuing to reap: “It’s a special community. You go there and you learn how to find your voice, how to take risks on a challenging campus, in a challenging city. It changed the direction of my life.”