President Debora Spar: Prepared Remarks


Good afternoon.

You are nearly done.

I will say some words now; there will be some additional pomp and circumstance; you will throw your caps in the air; scream; cry (some of you); and go celebrate with your family and friends.

Then you will pack; probably cry some more; reportedly party a bit; then sweat Wednesday on the Columbia lawn; throw your caps in the air again; cry (those few of you who haven’t yet); and then leave.  Full stop.  GONE.

On Thursday morning, when I go to work, all of you will be on your way.

I find it, always, one of the saddest moments of my year.  Because one day we’re all here, celebrating, wearing goofy robes, hugging and applauding amid hundreds of happy people and then the next day, YOU’RE ALL GONE.  And even though I will see you all, I hope, again; even though you will return to campus as young alums and class fund reps, as reunion coordinators and board members and nervous mothers, perhaps, of your own Barnard-applying daughters, you will never be on campus this way again.

As students

As classmates

As the people who line up for coffee at the Diana and sit for hours under the magnolia tree

Instead, as of Thursday, you, like graduating seniors across the country and around the world, will each go off, suddenly and inevitably, to forge your separate lives

It won’t be easy, I have to warn you, and it won’t always be fun.  Instead, as one recent grad once described it to me, you will feel for the next six months, or a year, or two years even, like a freshman in life, trying to decipher new ways of structuring your days and your relationships and your goals.  Like freshmen, you will probably lie a little bit about just how happy you are, and how confident you feel about the choices you’ve made.

And that’s okay.  Because – spoiler alert here – no one really likes their first job out of college; no one generally stays in it for too long; and success in this first position is only very rarely a predictor of one’s long term career trajectory.  (Thank goodness; I was the world’s worst volleyball referee; and probably the second worst ladies clothing salesperson.)

Over the next 12 months, I have to warn you again, you probably won’t be discovering new territories or saving the world

More likely, you’ll be staring at computer screens and attending meetings you don’t quite understand and tweeting for people my age

Which is, again, perfectly okay. Because what you want from your first job – or your first year in graduate school or your first year away – is to learn.  Not to learn as you’ve learned here – with professors and libraries and labs, but to learn from experience, and experimenting.  To learn what you like to do; figure out what you’re good at; and begin to plot, eventually, who you want to be.

Recently, I was asked to compile a list of the skills that young women need to succeed, regardless of the career or life they pursue.

Here, roughly, is what I wrote, and what I believe to be true:

First, all women – all people – need to be able to write.  To put words on paper in a way that makes sense; that conveys your meaning and purpose; and with the strength and eloquence to convince others of your point

Second, everyone needs to be able to speak – strongly, again, and with conviction and meaning.  One of the best pieces of advice I can give you all is to seize every single opportunity you have to speak before a group.  Because some day, you will be talking in front of 6,000 people in Radio City Music Hall. And you will feel the pressure to do it well.

Third, every college graduate should learn at least a little bit about money.  Many of you don’t want to do this, I know.  You may think money is boring, or unpoetic, or only an issue for the greedy and self-obsessed.  But the truth is, it’s not. And regardless, anything you want to do in this world – whether it is to create art, or improve health, or save the planet from the devastation my generation has bequeathed you – all of that will eventually entail money.  So learn how it works; learn how it’s made; and know enough so that you can create and shape your own future.

Fourth, every one of you should know, or learn, how to start over; how, in its simplest incarnation, to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.  Every single one of you is leaving today with a specific set of dreams. Most of those dreams will not come true – at least not in the specific form they exist right now.  (Trust me. I was supposed to be a spy.  Not. Even. Close.) 

So the trick lies in forging new dreams – in taking the zigs and the zags that life will inevitably toss you, and moving with them, polishing and refining and creating opportunities as they come.  This is resilience, and it is truly the key to greatness.

And finally, I’d like to end with a fifth skill, something that I think is particularly relevant here, and today.

And that is that you need to learn – we all need to learn, and constantly keep reminding ourselves to learn – how to listen.

We all fall prey way too often and too easily to the seductive lure of talking only to those we like, and those who share our own opinions and world view.

We tend to eat with those people in the dining hall.

We move into their neighborhoods.

We hire and promote them.

Even worse, we tend – all of us – to believe that diversity means associating with people who look different from us, or come from different backgrounds than us, but still essentially think the same way we do.

That’s not real diversity. 

Real diversity is being with people and, crucially, listening to people, who share different, even fundamentally different, views.

Real diversity means thinking about these views, and examining these views, even if – especially if – you wholly disagree with them.

Many of you have done that here today, and I appreciate your being here, and listening to people and opinions that are different from yours.

You have set an example, and one that I hope all of our graduates – all of you sitting in these first few rows today – will take with you and cherish as you venture into that wonderful, scary, complicated, fascinating place known as the real world.

I wish you luck as you venture forth.

I wish you love.

I wish you joy and adventure and the challenges that will test you and make you stronger.

I wish you godspeed.

And I will miss you all.  CONGRATULATIONS.