It has been quite a day, hasn’t it?
Earlier, I had the honor of presenting the Barnard class of 2017 to the president of Columbia University for conferral of the Bachelor of Arts degree. And President Bollinger said yes! So congratulations! Your work is done – finally.
It’s almost time for you to walk across this stage, out the door to Sixth Avenue, and on your way to your post-Barnard lives and a party or two.
I want to congratulate our Medalists—Johnnetta Cole, Diane von Furstenberg, and Zainab Salbi—and extra special thanks to Joanne Liu for your amazing remarks. Doctors without Borders is proof that humanity has not left this world.
And to each of the student speakers: I know this isn’t easy. Congratulations on a job well done.
Now you may not know, but this room is full of family traditions. The Class of 2017 includes 22 students whose moms attended Barnard, 7 whose grandmothers attended Barnard, and 21 with sisters who are proud alums. And there is one who can boast that she is a 4th generation Barnard woman. Her mother, grandmother and great grandmother—who are all still around to beam with pride—graduated from Barnard.
I also want to note that this is not my first time on the stage at Radio City Music Hall. I walked across this very stage at my high school graduation – The John F Kennedy high school Class of 1984.
Now times have changed, as many in this audience can attest. That summer,
- Ronald Reagan was President;
- Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” was the number one song, beating out Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after time” and Prince’s “When Dove’s cry.” Stiff competition.
- And Ghostbusters, was the big box office hit.
But no matter what decade we’re talking about, in our excitement during celebrations like this, we sometimes forget to enjoy the moment.
So let’s take a moment now. You are here, at the storied Radio City! The most famous theater in the world in the greatest city in the world.
- Home of the world-famous Rockettes.
- Greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, and Lady Gaga have performed on this stage.
- The Barnard classes of 2014 and 2016 graduated here.
- And don’t forget the John F Kennedy High School class of 1984.
So you are in excellent company.
But you didn’t get here—in these seats, in these robes—without a little help along the way. Family, friends, and mentors, who have supported you, guided you, cajoled you, cheered you on, and even taken your midnight calls, are celebrating right along with you. They deserve a round of applause.
Jon Stewart, once said that the “truly exciting thing about your life is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain.”
And I can promise you that Mr. Stewart is right.
But the thought of dealing with what’s out there may be some cause for concern.
At Barnard, with thanks to Anna Quindlen—and as your classmate Prianka just made clear in her remarks—we often say that you have majored in “unafraid.” But what does that actually mean as you head into the world today? As you choose life’s electives?
Let me say that it’s okay to feel a little nervous. I’d be nervous if you weren’t nervous.
I was stressed out at my College commencement and at other transitional moments in my life – changing careers after 25 years, coming to Barnard, moving back to New York City after a 30 year absence with a slightly annoyed high school junior in tow, and taking the stage today. It’s totally natural.
But here’s the thing: You are ready.
Just take a step back and realize that you have faced such challenges before.
You survived move-in day, adjusted to college, found new friends, learned how to succeed academically, and balanced your classes, homework, internships and jobs. You mastered the art of living in New York City, and even figured out how to game the big sub. You did all of this and a lot more.
It’s easy to say that Barnard has prepared you to deal with the world outside of the 117th street gate. But in reality, you prepared yourself. You arrived as athletes and entrepreneurs, artists and activists, scholars and writers. And that was just in high school. You didn’t need to major in “unafraid.” You came to us “unafraid.”
And this is good news, because we need you to be engaged in the world. We really need you.
I venture to say that the world is very different from what many of you expected when you began your Barnard journey.
Many of us thought we were on the cusp of seeing the first women become President and that many other opportunities would follow, in turn. But, instead, the challenges women face at this moment, right now, seem more daunting. Almost as if the hills to climb are a little steeper, a little rockier.
Okay, so I realize I may not be the best person to talk about this. So let me at least gather some perspective for you.
Consider what commencement speakers in Barnard’s past have told your predecessors:
Six years ago, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg reminded the class of 2011 that the promise of equality and actual equality are two different things. She urged the graduates to “lean in”, be leaders, and own their success, as they were the promise for a more equal world.
Nobel peace prize winner Leymah Gbowee urged the class of 2013 to step out of the shadows and refuse to hide. And in 2014, Cecile Richards, CEO of Planned Parenthood, reminded the graduates that women have achieved only what they have fought for, that the world can be tough and unjust, but that each of you gets to build the world you want to live in.
And, in 2012, President Obama spoke passionately to sea of Barnard blue assembled before him: Do not “accept somebody else’s construction of the way things ought to be,” he said. “It’s up to you to right the wrongs. It’s up to you to point out injustice. It’s up to you to hold the system accountable and sometimes upend it entirely. It’s up to you to stand up and be heard, to write and lobby, to march, to organize, to vote. Don’t be content to sit back and watch.”
And just moments ago, Joanne Liu made a very good case for never apologizing… for always choosing action.
So, while times have changed, the calls-to-action for Barnard students have remained remarkably consistent. A business women, a peace activist, an advocate for women’s health, a U.S. President, a humanitarian… they all agree.
Lean way in. Refuse to hide. Build the world you want to live in. And definitely don’t sit back and watch. Pretty sound advice offered for complicated times… no matter the era, no matter the year.
I guess my point is that the challenges you face today are indeed great, maybe even daunting. But this is life. The issues we are encountering now are difficult and complicated. They were difficult and complicated years ago.
But you are as ready to confront this world, in its current imperfect form, as your predecessors were prepared to confront theirs.
So my advice is to take all of this sage advice, because we need you engaged in the world. In the aftermath of the election, you asked what you could do, individually and collectively, to make change. I hope you will remember that now… to be part of the discourse, to raise your voices, to question the status quo.
With this, you can make a real difference in the world you are about to enter.
It has been my high honor and a true pleasure to have served you. Barnard College class of 2017: Congratulations. Well done.
Best of luck to you wherever your paths may lead.