Pioneering Spirit

How daring to ask “Why not?” powers generations of Barnard alumnae

By Sian Leah Beilock

President Sian Beilock
— Portrait by Dorothy Hong

As a parent and educator, I am always thinking about lessons that help shape a child’s future most, and what moments will leave the biggest (and hopefully best) impression. Third grade is one of mine, when I first learned that rules can be questioned and rewritten with good reason.

An athlete who grew up loving soccer’s many challenges, I was steadily advancing in skill as quickly as my young legs could carry me. As a goalkeeper, I loved the reward of correctly anticipating how to protect the net when facing down a fast approaching striker. What I didn’t love was being told by the boys’ soccer coach that I couldn’t play on their team.

Fortunately, I had a strong advocate in my mom. Standing beside her at the registration table in the gym, I listened in awe of her raised voice, surprising and indelible, “What do you mean she can’t play with the boys? Who do I need to talk to to fix this? Just because that’s how it has been doesn’t mean that is how it should be!"

They relented, rewrote the rules, and allowed me to play on what became a coed team. It crystallized for me what it means to be brave when faced with the unattainable, resistance, or even hostility. Ultimately, playing for that team was a small thing, but it opened big doors in my mind about the idea that you could challenge something you inherently knew wasn’t right, even if everyone around you said it was. And that’s why being president of Barnard is so important to me: The College’s legacy of welcoming and inspiring trailblazers is firmly established and continues to flourish today. 

This issue’s cover, for example, features a historic photo of Bhinda Shah ’56 superimposed on a shot of her granddaughter Aarya Shah ’23. When Bhinda arrived on campus, she became the first woman from Nepal to ever attend college in the United States. After winning an essay contest that brought her stateside, she met a Barnard alumna from the contest’s committee who encouraged her to apply and helped arrange the financial means for her to attend. 

Barnard began a journey for Bhinda, who later became Nepal’s first woman ambassador, with postings in India and the United States. “All I had was my familiar silk sari cocooning me and my belief that I could do this.... All I wanted to do was learn — from my classes, from my friends, and from America,” she said. “I realize just how fortunate I was to get that learning experience, because that was the foundation on which I built my life.” 

Young girl holding a soccer ball
President Beilock as a young soccer player.

Similarly, Barnard galvanized physicist Myriam Sarachik ’54 on her pioneering path toward a degree and career in one of the most male-dominated scientific professions — even today, fewer than 20% of new Ph.D. physicists are women. Myriam studied physics at a time when Barnard offered few courses in the field. “There were maybe three or perhaps four women physics majors on campus, in all four years combined,” she says. “More often than not, I sat in the class [mostly at Columbia] and I was the only woman there.” A friend at Barnard decided to get her Ph.D. in physics, which in turn inspired Myriam. “I looked at her, and I was like, ‘Well, she’s not talking about not being able to, or not being allowed to, or it being inappropriate. She’s just doing it. So, if she can do it, why can’t I?’”

These are just two inspiring stories from this issue, which take their place among a galaxy of others that alumnae going back to the College’s founding can recount and share. Stories of women who observed the rules and dared to rewrite them, thus opening the door for others, including Bhinda’s granddaughter Aarya and Laura Newburgh ’03, Myriam’s colleague some 50 years later (see story on page 14).

I’m happy to report that in our Class of 2019, 34% were math and science majors (well ahead of the 21% national average), and that one-third of underrepresented minorities were STEM majors (compared to 23% nationally). It’s how progress is made, steadily and courageously, by those willing to test their mettle and continue to ask “Why not?” like my mom did in the gym that day but on a much bigger scale. It’s what Barnard does as an institution, pushing boundaries at a critical time when it’s needed most.

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