When Phanesia Pharel ’21 joined the Athena Center as an intern in 2019, the urban studies major arrived with her own passion project, a yearly event called Bold, Beautiful, Black @ Barnard, already established and garnering praise around campus. 

“[As an intern, I was able] to continue to strategize for Bold, Beautiful, Black @ Barnard,” she said, crediting an Athena Masterclass with renowned media expert and innovator Cyndi Stivers ’78 for helping her “to formulate” her ideas more (even visiting the alumna at the TED offices). “Right now I’m trying to figure out ways to combine media with the [event], and Athena was very helpful.”

The internship coincided with a paradigm shift that was happening within the Athena Center as it prepared for its second decade, and Pharel soon became part of a larger, ongoing conversation about what leadership is and looks like at Barnard. Her feedback — along with many others’ — helped shape a new program model focused on leadership as problem-solving.

With the Athena Center’s relaunch, which was announced today by its director, Umbreen Bhatti ’00, more students like Pharel who are inspired to create a better world — and either have ideas or need help developing them — will find the Center more supportive than ever, thanks to its new focus and flexibility.

“We’ve been preparing for this moment for the last two years, actively listening to faculty, students, alumnae, and staff about what Athena is and could be,” said Bhatti, who assumed the helm after founder Kathryn Kolbert retired in 2018. “And now we’re ready to introduce a new Athena for a new decade.”  

The new, revitalized Athena Center will provide students with cocurricular opportunities to build on the knowledge they gain in the classroom with Barnard’s world-class faculty. Through Athena, students can take advantage of a wide range of experiential offerings — from team-based “Athena Challenges” on topics such as hunger, climate change, and privacy to individually designed projects and enhanced skill-building workshops — giving students the chance to engage from the moment they walk on campus as first-years. 

“In the long tradition of women working collaboratively at and beyond Barnard to enact change, we’re proud of Athena’s new focus, which will empower more students in more ways,” said President Sian Leah Beilock. “As a liberal arts college for women located in one of the world’s biggest innovation labs, we are uniquely positioned to define what women-led problem-solving looks like.”  

“Athena will be home to Barnard students who see opportunities in challenges and seize them to build a better world, because these are the leaders we need now,” said Bhatti. “You can learn to lead by doing, working in meaningful collaborations, building resilience and tapping into your creativity — because few problems worth solving are solved by a single person, approach, or try.”

Flexible offerings will serve students from all disciplines, from STEM to the arts and everything in between, depending on students’ time commitments:

It’s a new journey that Bhatti is well qualified to captain. Her intimate knowledge of the College as an alumna and her background in law, media, and design, as well as her experience with incubating new models of work, have helped the Center’s transition to a community dedicated to addressing today’s increasingly complex issues.

“Over the last decade, Athena has helped many students craft entrepreneurial ideas that resonate in communities beyond our own,” said Barnard Provost Linda Bell. “Athena will continue building on that success to serve an even greater number of students and in more ways for years to come.”

“Barnard attracts women that want to change the world — it almost feels like a requirement to being here. Athena is perfectly situated,” said Pharel, who is looking forward to the Center now supporting “a lot of really cool projects that surprise people.” 

“Barnard gave me the space to begin my personal game of Tetris … fitting together pieces that I had been cultivating since childhood,” said Ariella Salimpour ’17, who, during her time in Athena, began working on a lifesaving medical app called thumbroll, which enhances patient care and improves outcomes through on-the-spot training software that is now used in more than 90 countries and over 100 programs in the U.S. “Athena gave me the confidence I needed to then take those pieces, my ideas and skills, and construct innovative structures I now believe are possible.”

As one of the many voices who lent their experiences and feedback to the Center’s new model, Salimpour is excited to see it evolve. “Athena was built around bringing women together to support and challenge one another, and now it will provide support to address challenges with one another’s help. It’s really inspiring to see its development from individual leaders to collective leadership through problem-solving.”

So while the Center gets ready to introduce a record number of proud, powerful women directors making their New York or international premieres at its upcoming 10th annual Athena Film Festival later this month, it’s also rolling out the red carpet for its own new creative venture. 

“Leaders are made, not born,” said Salimpour. “This idea is at the heart and soul of Athena, [which] continues moving the needle by developing the next generation of women who will take on the world’s greatest challenges.”

To learn more about the new direction, and to get involved, visit the following pages:

Athena Center 
Op-ed: The Leadership We Need Now