Barnard College students are confidently forging a path ahead in an uncertain world, encouraged by a unique platform of action offered by the Athena Center for Leadership.
Athena Challenges brought motivated students together with NYC-based institutions and members of the Barnard community to dig into complex challenges and practice their problem-solving skills during the first half of the spring 2020 semester. A dozen students participated in the Athena Center’s first Challenge, “What’s on Your Plate?,” which took place in four sessions throughout February and was open to all students, regardless of class year, major, or previous experience.
Taking on the Challenge
The "What's on Your Plate" Challenge addressed the food insecurity faced by up to 41% of college students today. A team of experts challenged participants to develop sustainable solutions for ending campus hunger in New York City, guiding them through skill-building sessions to collaboratively develop ideas for their peers currently experiencing food insecurity.
“Our goal is to provide students the chance to learn by doing, working on tough, important problems,” said Umbreen Bhatti ’00, Constance Hess Williams ’66 Director of the Athena Center. “We’re thrilled when our students are engaging with a community of mentors and experts who are generous with their knowledge and networks through events that are flexible time-wise. The first Athena Challenge is a great example of the kind of programming we expect to be doing a lot more of in our next chapter.”
Since its launch 10 years ago, the Athena Center has dedicated itself to developing the next generation of women leaders. As it prepared for its next decade, the Center observed a growing demand for students eager to take initiative and address the most pressing problems in the world around them. “We heard strong interest in opportunities to tackle real-world problems and wanted to create a space where students could not just engage with hard problems but see themselves as problem solvers,” said Bhatti. “Athena is a home for Barnard students who see opportunities amidst the many vexing challenges we face and seize them to build a better world — because these are the leaders we need now.”
Tackling Food Insecurity
The Center’s first challenge grew out of a partnership between A Place at the Table (APATT) and its campaign director, Kristen Castree, who had reached out to Athena to express interest in collaborating with Barnard students. “What’s on Your Plate” allowed students to engage with a national organization that has years of experience working to promote food-insecurity education and advocacy.
During the challenge, students learned more about the subject of food insecurity through a screening of Hungry to Learn, a documentary film by Soledad O’Brien and Geeta Gandbhir, produced by Rose Arce ’86. Discussion and brainstorming followed among fellow students, the team from APATT, and Ariana González Stokas, Barnard’s VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Students focused on reframing the hunger problem through what they personally found most inspiring and motivating and then developed ideas in groups through evaluative collaboration.
Their efforts were recognized at a dinner reception hosted by Craft, where they presented their findings to a panel of experts, including chef Tom Colicchio, one of the founding members of APATT. The reception quickly became many students’ favorite memory from the Challenge.
“I was definitely nervous to present my team’s solution in front of a panel of professionals, but after my presentation I was able to relax and really reflect on how far we had come in such a short time,” shared Collier Curran ’20. “That reception was when I cemented my bonds with my team members as well as members of other teams, and it was when I knew that this Challenge had changed me.”
A Community of Change-Makers
The Athena Center team was impressed and inspired by the student engagement. Bhatti observed groups that showed up ready to work and who took full advantage of the resources, assessed the problem, and presented thoughtful, impact-conscious solutions. “We saw a real community of changemakers form in this short time — and we’re looking forward to nurturing and strengthening it,” said Bhatti.
Student participants shared how the Challenge helped hone their skills within a discussion setting. For Curran, this meant learning “when to take control and when to step back” and say “Yes, and?” to every proposed idea when searching for solutions.
“We were encouraged to brainstorm ideas without considering logistics or finer details — those would come later,” explained Curran, who says she is usually very shy. “Such thinking inspired us to build on each other’s ideas instead of immediately tearing them down. It was during this exercise that my group came up with our most creative ideas and when I felt the most free to speak my mind and propose ideas without judgment.”
For Dipashreya Sur ’23, the experience taught her “how effective the design thinking model is to any challenge, even the world’s toughest challenge[s] — [such as] hunger and food insecurity.” By embracing and cultivating even the most unlikely ideas, Sur’s group was able to develop solutions for this daunting problem. “Every idea has potential during the brainstorming session. For my group, an idea that seemed so undoable ended up being our final project.”
The Future of Problem Solving
“If this challenge was considered a ‘trial run,’ I cannot imagine the quality of future Challenges,” said Curran, who encourages other students to apply. “The time commitment is very reasonable for how much you learn. The sessions are jam-packed and ... an incredible way to expand your leadership skills without making a semester- or year-long commitment. It is also a great opportunity to form meaningful bonds with other Barnard students you may have never met otherwise.”
The Athena Center says that its problem-solving programming benefits from a diverse range of contributors. President Sian Leah Beilock has cited research that shows how diverse groups make better decisions, ask the right questions, and offer more accurate solutions.
“Through working in teams with students that you most likely did not know beforehand, the program was a great way to meet other Barnard students and to learn how to collaborate with different personalities,” said Sur.
While the world works collaboratively to solve its most critical challenge today — COVID-19 — Barnard students can continue to expect support from the Athena Center. Soon after the campus transitioned online in mid-March, the Center began offering three new virtual events to provide community, connections, and escape through “Talking Tuesdays, “Alum Hours,” and “Friday Funnies.”
Students can also expect to see more Athena Challenges, including a session tentatively rescheduled for the fall on digital privacy, Design for Digital Natives. In the meantime, students are encouraged to participate in its virtual events and reach out with ideas for additional Challenges.
The Athena Center’s work to support the Barnard community and to continue helping students develop leadership and problem-solving skills is ongoing — whether virtually or on campus. The team looks forward to future challenges, wherever they take place.
“Great leaders are great problem solvers. We’re committed to helping Barnard students take creative, collaborative, and ethical approaches to the many complex problems we face and to building the resilience and balance they need to be successful in the long term,” said Bhatti. “Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen, and it will happen with students like this leading the way.”
— ISABELLA PECHATY ’23