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Transcript and Video of Speech by Class President Reni Calister

Barnard College Commencement
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
New York City

Wow. Good afternoon. And might I say, this is the most gorgeous sea of blue-gowned women I have ever laid eyes on. Barnard women really can pull off any ensemble. Before I get too sentimental, which is my new favorite pastime, I would like to thank the administration, faculty and staff for taking the time to get to know us as individuals. Your passion for this college and its students is inspiring. To all of the parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts and very best friends in attendance, thank you for having the patience for enduring our strong, beautiful Barnard ways. Sometimes we can get carried away and forget to call. And to you, the Class of 2011, thank you for allowing me the honor to thank people on your behalf. It is a distinct pleasure.

I have been having a very hard time. I can’t finish anything: my thesis, planning for next year, even writing this very speech. And that is why this is the end of the speech. But, really, why can’t I finish anything? It wasn’t until Public Safety kindly removed me from my last class that I realized I can’t finish anything because I am scared of the end. At the exact moment when I feel totally at home, when I have located the last single-stall bathroom on this campus and when I’ve actually found a way to live entirely, solely off of Barnard Catering, I must go. We are about to leave behind everything that is comfortable and all that we have worked for over the past four years, so of course, we are afraid. But my friends, we have done this before.

The poised women sitting in front of me are not the nervous girls that piled through these gates on the first day of NSOP 2007. When we came to Barnard, we traded in home cooking for the home station at Hewitt. We willingly sacrificed our privacy to live in a tiny room with a complete stranger in an all-female living compound. Yet, through these trials and tribulations, we were challenged and forced to grow. We learned that an education is not about getting an A on a history paper or earning a perfect score on a biology exam, but it is the process through which we learn what is important to us. We also learned that independence is not just possessing the autonomy to stay out until 6:00 a.m. without calling home. But it also the ability to cultivate our own opinions, just as we master the art of extreme multitasking, to take control of our overactive lives, we transitioned from comfort to chaos, the injustice.

A few weeks ago while waiting in line for two hours in Liz’s Place, I stood behind a first-year student armed with a massive backpack and a manic expression to match. And she ordered her complex caffeinated beverage. And the cashier asked her how her day was. I winced, knowing exactly how Barnard students answer that seemingly harmless question. "Well, I have a 45-page paper due tomorrow, which I haven’t started, two shows this weekend, five meetings scheduled for the same time and I forgot to shower, because I didn’t write it on my to-do list." The cashier looks at her and says, “Man, you ladies don’t know when to stop.” Stop, please. But maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m not finishing things, because after four years at Barnard, I finally realized that I need to stop. We’ve all put so much pressure on ourselves to take the maximum amount of credits, slap on multiple internships, attend every event, strive and climb and succeed some more.

But so what if we haven’t done it all? I, Reni Calister, President of the Class of 2011, have never been to a Big Sub. And I’m okay with it. If you missed a Learner Pub or a Senior Night, because best friends in pajamas and YouTube videos of talking animals seemed more appealing, then that’s exactly what you should have done. Stop, breathe, reflect. And if you are anything like me, after four years of trying to outdo yourself in every way, you will finally see that perfection is impossible. As we say goodbye to everything that we know, I challenge you all to let yourselves be a little more human. I challenge you to be open to the adventures and the failures that will surely come, because college is not the only time for exploration and growth.

In order to effectively bring home my message and because I know that my classmates are so goal oriented, I’ve come up with a three-part post-graduate assignment for us all. Pay close attention. First, put things that make you happy at the top of your to-do list, because taking time for yourself is neither a crime, nor an option. Second, have some perspective, because worrying about all things great and small will only lead to a stomach ache and wrinkles. Last, stay true to your own path. And no matter how many times you hear the word “no”, stay true to yourself. If in 20 years, you find yourself sounding as frantic as that first-year I encountered in Liz’s Place, your follow-up assignment is as follows. Put down your smartphones. Take off your gorgeously-tailored business suit, tell your assistant to take the afternoon off and then blast your favorite song and dance like you did in college, because you deserve it.

My sisters, keep in touch with the friends who have supported you throughout these four years and remember all that your time here has taught you. Most importantly, be kind to yourselves. And despite how scary, exciting, sad or sweet the end of our time at Barnard may be, you have grown into women of whom you should be proud. Class of 2011, we finished.