When it comes to welcoming students back to campus, Barnard’s annual Convocation event is the College’s official launch party. On September 14, 2021, students, faculty, staff, and alumnae celebrated the start of the 2021-22 academic year with a return to the iconic Riverside Church.
Traditionally attended by the entire Barnard community, this year the ceremony welcomed first-years and sophomores to Barnard for their first in-person campus celebration. Juniors and seniors joined in virtually from on-campus watch parties, and parents, alumnae, and all others were invited to livestream the event. As is traditional, students, from first-years to seniors, wore T-shirts coded by color to represent their class year.
In her welcoming remarks, President Sian Leah Beilock rejoiced over the community coming together and announced the launch of the Barnard Year of Science (BYOS), an exciting “yearlong initiative designed to uplift and showcase the work that our entire community — students, faculty, and alums — does to contribute to the most pressing challenges and scientific opportunities of our time and to lead the way in providing young students not only with access to studying the sciences but also the support they need to persist and thrive in the STEM disciplines,” she said.
While highlighting the adaptability, resilience, and reorientation experienced by many throughout a year of uncertainty, President Beilock reiterated the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in everyday life and on campus.
“Science, itself, is all about reorientation,” she told the students and community members watching the livestream. “Core to Barnard’s academic excellence is our belief that diversity of thought, perspectives, and lived experience allows you to achieve your full intellectual potential, with greater knowledge, discoveries, and insights. This includes the sciences: Because the sciences are an integral part of the liberal arts, not a separate entity, all of our students acquire scientific skills that enable them to succeed in any career they decide to pursue, whether in the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences, or some combination.”
Following President Beilock, Nim Tottenham ’96, professor of psychology at Columbia, delivered the keynote address and drew a connection between synaptic overproduction and improv comedy in her advice to current students.
“Synaptic overproduction … describes how our brains learn and become more complex and interesting,” Tottenham explained. When we’re young, our brains overproduce connections between brain cells — synapses — and, as we grow older, some of those synapses are pruned back based on what we choose to focus on.
This, Tottenham told students, is what makes some people active learners. “It’s like Mother Nature gave us a big fishing net and said, ‘Go explore the world and pull back a good catch,’” she said. “What you bring back in terms of experiences is what will build your brain.”
And improv comedy? “I cherish that experience because it taught me the concept of saying ‘Yes, and …’ reflected Tottenham. “You are open to new people, activities, and ideas, even if you’re not yet entirely sure where things will lead. The ‘and’ part of ‘Yes, and’ means that in addition to saying ‘Yes,’ you then add to the narrative with your own piece.”
Provost and Dean of the Faculty Linda A. Bell reminded students that even though it’s been a wearying year, this is a time for renewed energy. “Harness [this feeling of rejuvenation] and channel it productively into your studies, in the relationships and lifelong bonds you build with your classmates, into the opportunities to learn, to research, to explore among the disciplines, the fullness and the richness of the campus, and the beauty of the city of New York,” said Provost Bell. “At Barnard, we take seriously the responsibility to allow you to explore, to think critically, to forge relationships and to make your own discoveries, to gain new perspectives, and to take risks so that when you step beyond our gates, you can both pursue what inspires you and share it to good measure with the world.”
Board of Trustees member Ann Sacher ’85, who attended her first Convocation 40 years ago as a first-year in 1981, talked about how she was “directionless” as a young scholar when she first arrived at Barnard, before being reoriented into an unexpected field after expressing an interest in math and science. “A few years later, I found myself in medical school — the only student in my class who had majored in economics. I loved it,” Sacher said. “I became a surgeon and had a career that was rewarding and nothing that I would have ever dreamed of having had it not been for my very astute Barnard advisor.”
That ability to pivot successfully — to secure a STEM career after graduating with a non-STEM degree, for example — is core to Barnard and another reason to celebrate BYOS. As President Beilock told students, “We are also here to step back and remind you to seize the opportunities you have at Barnard with experimental abandon, to remind yourselves why you were chosen to be here, and to celebrate what a gift and fortune it is to not know all the answers, to reorient as needed, and to reinvent yourselves, this community, and the entire world.”
Leslie Grinage, Dean of the College, shared her excitement for the official launch of the academic year with direct charges to each of the four class years: “To our seniors, in your final year as a Barnard student, I hope you will take time to reflect on the remarkable resilience you have demonstrated since you began at Barnard…. To our juniors, you are in a unique position to learn from the seniors while also modeling the way for your sophomore and first-year peers.... Sophomores, I hope that the last two weeks have helped you feel more settled into the Barnard community…. And to our first-year and transfer students, at the beginning of NSOP [New Student Orientation Program] a few weeks ago, I implored you to pace yourselves, and that still holds today.” Grinage also noted that first-years are joining a big, new family at Barnard and encouraged them to seek guidance from seniors, faculty, and staff.
In her speech, Emily Ndiokho ’22, the president of Barnard’s Student Government Association (SGA), reflected on the disruptions to the student experience caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the joy of returning to campus. “As college students, I feel that we have grown up constantly experiencing what feels like the world falling apart,” said Ndiokho. “But I urge us to lean on the words of the incredible organizer and former BCRW Researcher-in-Residence Mariame Kaba, as she states: ‘Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.’”
At Riverside Church and the virtual watch parties, students in attendance were energized by the return to campus. “I’m really excited for Barnard’s Convocation because I haven’t been to one since my first year in 2018, and it just feels like a beautiful, full-circle moment to see everybody,” said Bannon Beall ’22 on Futter Field.
“I’m excited to attend Convocation because even though I am a senior, it’s my first year [attending],” added Priscilla Kong ’22. “I’m really excited to hear from Nim Tottenham ’96.”
Grace Welte ’25 also expressed her enthusiasm for Convocation, alongside fellow first-year Pia Velazquez ’25, stating that it will start her inaugural year at the College off well. Velazquez said the event “made [being at Barnard] feel more real and more exciting for what’s to come.”
Following Convocation, dozens of students took park in the celebration on campus featuring food trucks, music, lawn games, and more for the whole community to enjoy.