Hero image, from l to r: Mary Beth Keane ’99, Mary Gordon ’71, Edwidge Danticat ’90, and Cecily Wong ’10.

For many first-generation students, attending college can feel like breaking new ground. At the Coming to Barnard event on February 20, 2020, four alumnae authors — Edwidge Danticat ’90; Mary Gordon ’71, Millicent C. McIntosh Professor in English and Writing; Mary Beth Keane ’99, adjunct associate professor of English; and Cecily Wong ’10 — returned to campus to talk about their experiences and how they overcame obstacles.

Even though the four writers came from varied worlds, there was only one that they wanted to study in: Barnard's. All were united by their determination to attend the College no matter how improbable, even if the pushback came from their own parents. “I remember coming home from high school one day and telling my parents that I’d heard at school they were supposed to drive me all around the East Coast to look at colleges and take tours,” Keane, who transferred to Barnard after spending a year at SUNY Binghamton, said to sympathetic laughter. “And my dad was like, ‘Get a load of this kid! She thinks I'm gonna take off work to drive around the East Coast to shop for colleges? No.’”

Similarly, Gordon recalled she “had to fight to get here.” Gordon told the audience that no one from her high school had ever attended an Ivy League institution, and her guidance counselor refused to submit her transcript to Barnard. Not willing to give up, Gordon called Barnard explaining her predicament, and an admissions representative intervened on her behalf.

Like Gordon, Danticat, who learned about the College from an admissions representative who visited her high school, knew early that Barnard was the right choice for her. She arrived as a HEOP student the summer before her first year. Similar to Keane’s parental battles, Danticat’s parents, whom she described as “very old-fashioned,” insisted that she commute from their home in Brooklyn rather than live on campus. Danticat agreed to commute on the condition that she could study for a year in Paris. “And then, my father, I would overhear him say to people after I had studied abroad, ‘Yes, I sent her to Paris,’” Danticat said, laughing.

Once on campus, new challenges were faced. Wong and Keane described feeling out of place among their classmates, who appeared more well-read and knew works that neither of them had heard of before Barnard, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Still, Wong said, after Barnard had sent everyone an unassigned book over the summer, she was delighted to discover the outcome: “It was the first time I had been around people who were voluntarily reading the book and showing up to talk about it.”

Wong’s statement represents some of what each of the writers said they discovered at Barnard: community and guidance. Danticat found support among her HEOP cohort and the Haitian student club, as well as from Dean Katherine Wilcox and senior associate of English and Africana studies Quandra Prettyman. “You build a community as you go along,” she said. Gordon found mentors in professors Anne Prescott and Janice Thaddeus ’55. Both Keane and Wong said that Gordon had been one of their biggest influences and sources of help, providing mentorship and job opportunities. “Mary was the first person who made me feel like I had a purpose here,” Wong said.

That Barnard guidance is what ultimately helped all four alumnae become the writers they are today. “One of the most important things about writing is reading,” Gordon said. “You can get to [a writing career] by yourself, but you need to know the [writers] you might not have known about because they’re of a different age or culture, and an institution can make that a shortcut.” Gordon emphasized that Barnard requires its writers to major in English, not just creative writing, to get the full canon scope. 

Danticat mentioned the invaluable benefit of access to great writers who visit campus and reminded attendees to build confidence by acknowledging the small steps that are accomplished along the way. "We all have the potential to be storytellers," she told the audience. And as for the writing itself, Keane advised aspiring storytellers to stick with the subject that “lights you up,” rather than try to write what seems commercial or trendy at the time. 

“Barnard taught me that the quality of the work is what matters most,” Keane said. “Don’t try to fit [your work] into anything that seems to be interesting to people in any given moment, because all that’s going to change. You’re doing this for yourself.”