President Sian Leah Beilock, Remarks as Delivered

Abby, thank you so much for that rousing speech. The soccer player in me would say that you definitely scored.

It is truly a privilege to be here today to celebrate the Barnard Class of 2018--or should I say, Barnard Wolf Pack. You are amazing and inspiring, and I must confess to feeling a certain special kinship with you. After all, this is my first Barnard commencement, you are the first group of seniors that I met last fall, and you are the first I’ve had the pleasure of watching evolve and grow through your final year at the College.

So, congratulations! You make us so proud.

Many here today have sat right where you’re sitting. Maybe not in velvety seats in Radio City Music Hall—pretty spectacular, I have to say—but in some auditorium or gymnasium or on a grassy lawn, somewhere in the world. And they have waited for the moment when their name is called and they shake a president’s hand, breathe a sigh of relief, and graduate from college.

It even happened to me. Twenty-one years ago, on June 14, 1997, I sat in a folding chair on a huge playing field in the hot California sun with my classmates as we graduated from the University of California, San Diego.

Although I don’t remember every aspect of that day, I do remember being equally amazed and terrified by the prospect that I would soon be packing up all my belongings and leaving the state of California where I had spent my entire life. I realized that I didn’t know exactly what my future would hold, but I promised myself that I would try—really try—to take the unexpected in stride.

Some of what I thought was in store for me happened. Some of it never transpired, not even close. When I graduated I could have, vaguely, predicted my career as a scientist, but nowhere in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would have the honor of standing before you as your president. Who would have known?

You will find this phenomenon playing out time and time again throughout your lives—sitting at an important juncture, thinking that you might know what lies ahead and working to be ok with what is still unclear. I hope that at those times, you will try to remember who and what got you there. I also hope that you will remember that it’s okay not to know everything about what is yet to come.

That’s part of the beauty of life. The effort and passion and drive, combined with uncertainty, keep things interesting.

My first big Barnard event was last September’s Convocation—a memorable and humbling experience for someone so new on the job. But I had a lot of support that day, in the audience and on the stage, including from our keynote speaker, Carol Dweck, Barnard Class of 1967, fellow scientist and mentor.

Carol started the speech with a look back at her first year at Barnard, 1963. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech set the tenor for those incredible times. And what she came to understand, in the decades since and with a little perspective, was that Barnard had given her the tools she needed to understand and navigate the complex world before her. Barnard had given her and her classmates the values that helped guide them, and it had given them the sense that doors were there for them to open.

Carol also talked about her research in psychology which has shown that people have different mindsets about their talents and abilities. You can think of intelligence as a fixed trait—you get what you get—or you can have a growth mindset which sees intelligence as a quality that can be developed over time. Not surprisingly, people with a growth mindset are not afraid of challenges, they show greater resilience when they fail, and they often achieve at a higher level when facing difficulty. [gesture to Abby] Abby Wambach: growth mindset exhibit A.

I would say that this is true for you too, Class of 2018, not just because you have made it through college but because you have made it through this college. As Carol said, at Barnard we have given you the knowledge and the tools to take the next steps in life, but we have not laid out the precise path to your futures. You will need your growth mindset to help you do that. You have learned, from your stellar faculty and from one another, that everything is a process. Everything takes time and effort and often requires the retracing of steps. Many of you are graduating in majors you had ignored early on. Many of you are pursuing jobs and careers that you never imagined. Some of you are doing exactly what you expected to do today, but let’s check in again at your fifth reunion and see what the story is then.

Simply put, there is not one linear path. You didn’t hop on the linear path bus when you arrived on campus as first-years, and you aren’t likely to get on any time soon.

Of course, as a class, there are certain shared experiences that have framed your college years. You have witnessed and participated in movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too. You have rallied for transgender rights and our trans admissions policy. You have watched Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the election of Donald Trump. You have made Barnard more sustainable and more inclusive. You have challenged each other to engage in civil discourse and dialogue. And you have recognized the need for an anti-stress culture that will help other students in years to come. 

But as one of the 619 students of the Class of 2018, you are also distinct. What has served to shape this moment for you will be different from what matters most to any of your classmates. There will be overlap, of course, but what gives meaning to individual lives is just that, individual.

I urge you to call on that individual, personal memory today as far back as it can take you, and let this be a moment of review. A particular professor, a favorite course, a book you devoured, a lab paper you wrote, a trip, a roommate, an advisor, a special guest who spoke on campus whose words changed the way you think about the world. Mark these moments and keep them.

And no matter what you do from here, let your time at Barnard serve as a solid foundation. That is our hope. And let it lend perspective. This is an excellent starting point for what we know will be remarkable lives. Do not let go of your dreams and your beliefs and your fight, but do not lose your perspective along the way. Abby just demonstrated the importance of that. Katherine Johnson has lived that for nearly 100 years. Rhea Suh will tell you that, if you ask. And Anna Quindlen always tells us that. In fact, in 2000, Anna wrote Short Guide to a Happy Life, coincidentally as part of a commencement speech that she was supposed to give that year.

Here’s what she said:

“…when you look at the faces of a class of graduating seniors, you realize that each student has only one thing that no one else has. When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life.”

Thank you Anna for helping me with these words of wisdom, and thank you seniors for being the best possible demonstration of what makes Barnard so great. I am delighted to know you and to have taken at least part of this journey with you. 

Please have a great time out there. And please bring your worldly and wonderful perspectives on life back to campus. We wish you well in every way.