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Transcript and video of speech by SGA President Jessica Blank

Barnard College Commencement
Monday, May 14, 2012
New York City

Photo: David Wentworth/Barnard College

Hello. My name is Jessica Blank and I am the Barnard Student Government President, here to deliver greetings from the Student Government Association. 

Growing up, I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to discover a cure for cancer, star in the Nutcracker (although, my lack of hands/eye coordination – that was not such a good idea), win an Olympic gold medal and become the first female President of the United States.

I, like many of you, came to Barnard with the thought that this college would help me find my place in the world.  When I arrived here four years ago, I was petrified, awkward and in awe of this incredible institution, filled with accomplished and worldly students who are club presidents, interns extraordinaire, award winning scholars and so much more.  I stand before you today, no longer petrified, probably still slightly awkward [laughter] but even more in awe of my fellow Barnard graduates and the adventures we are beginning.

Barnard’s identity as a women’s college was not the reason I chose to attend this school.  I grew up in a family with three, rambunctious, yet adorable brothers any by a young age, could name the batting line-up of the New York Yankees and the player stats of the New York Giants.  As a high school senior about to leave my male-dominated comfort zone, I was apprehensive to attend a women’s college.  I, instead, focused on the characteristics that drew me to Barnard:  It’s accomplished faculty [Applause.], location in New York City, renowned Liberal Arts education, and of course, many of Barnard’s celebrated alumni – Margaret Mead, Zora Neal Hurston, Anna Quindlen, Helene Gayle – the list goes on. 

Well, how wrong I was.  As it turns out, the more time I spent on campus, the more that I realized it was not just about these traits or the famous alumni – it was the strong, bold, beautiful students around me – striving for excellence and invigorating one another to work harder and reach higher, that made my experience here.

Every Barnard graduate, past and present, is extraordinary.  But, more importantly, taken together, form a community of leaders who push one another and are challenged by award winning faculty to attain greatness.  For decades, Barnard women have mentored, stimulated and encouraged one another.  Some call it a sisterhood, others hash-tag women helping women. [Laughter.]

Barnard, as an institution, embodies this mission. During our tenure here, the college has launched and hosted The Athena Center for Leadership Studies [applause], the Women in Public Service Project, the White House Council on Women and Girls at the Urban Economic Forum, the first Mentor it Forward event in New York City and of course, Oprah's Next Chapter with Gloria Steinem. [Applause.]

I am blessed to have grown up with four major female role models in my life:  My mother, who demonstrated that there are enough hours in a day to do everything you love; my two grandmothers, who are pillars of strength and guidance, and my great-grandmother, who lived through a century of changes and told me that I should never let anything get in the way of living my dreams.

Barnard has offered me even more role models who are passionate about women’s issues and who continue to break down barriers – even ones which we thought we had already tackled.  I have also found mentors – you know who you are – who have guided me to the place I am today.  They live by the maxim famously stated by Madeleine Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.”  [Applause.]

Although our lives are shaped by powerful women, I would be remiss if I did not mention our male partners in women’s empowerment.  Thank you to the men who have supported and inspired me:  My father, grandfathers [inaudible][0:31:39] and of course, leaders like the President of the United States sitting here today.  [Applause.]

As I sit at our commencement, the onus is now on us.  “We” are responsible for shaping Barnard’s legacy.  It is incumbent upon us, to take the lessons learned from our foremothers and continue to teach one another and the women of the future.   In our digital information age, with websites like the Levo League and Women in the World, the tools to pay it forward are endless and excuses, non-existent. Years from now, are perhaps sooner, Barnard students will visit our old dorm rooms, cite our thesis, read our novels in the course reading Barnard writing, and brag that they attend our Alma Mater.      

As I reflect on my experience here, I discover that my one world has become infinite worlds of possibilities and there are unlimited opportunities to make a difference. The 594 graduates sitting before me have amazed me with their accomplishments and goals, and have taught me that there is no limit to our growth. 

We may head our separate ways, always remembering our shared moments of late night study sessions, Liz’s Place coffee lines, Greek Games barbecues; but I know that I will proudly hear the stories of your achievements and feel as though I, too, am discovering a cure for cancer, starring in the Nutcracker, winning an Olympic gold medal, becoming the first female president and choreographing a Broadway musical, arguing a case before the Supreme Court, raising a family, teaching for America, inventing a new technology and succeeding in ways we never thought possible. Because this is what we, the extraordinary women of the Barnard College Class of 2012 are capable of.  After all, didn’t the President of the United States choose to speak at our Commencement?

Thank you.   [Applause.]