A few months ago, I moved my desk to the other side of my office. When I arrived at Barnard in July, it was situated so that my back was to the window. Today, when I sit behind it I can see the grey brick buildings on 120th Street and the trees that are now fully covered in green. Since I spend a great deal of time in 109 Milbank, making the space my own feels important.
In my research as a cognitive scientist, I have explored how the mind and body are connected and how external factors often play a major part in what goes on in our heads. We usually talk about how our brains affect our bodies, but in my work, I have looked at things from the opposite direction—from body to brain. Whether or not you are aware of it, your body can influence your mind, and even change it. That’s why Barnard’s Well-Woman offers many programs with relaxation as a goal, and Dean Avis Hinkson has started a walking group on campus. They understand that when your body can move freely, the way you think tends to follow.
Our surroundings matter, too. And little things we do in relation to those surroundings can have a big effect. Exposure to nature can help us with concentration and mood, and taking active breaks from work or vexing problems can give your brain a chance to regroup and reboot. Even physically walking away from a problem for a few minutes, or simply looking out a window, as I often do, may help you think better.
This holds true for our students here on campus. The physical surroundings affect their daily lives and, it invariably happens that, over time, they find their space and make it their own. I imagine that when you think back on your years at Barnard, no matter the decade, you can probably recall your favorite study spot, your preferred library, or the bench you sought out when you needed to relax. Chances are, you all remember the spaces and places that were part of your Barnard experience. Some of you conducted research in the Arthur Ross Greenhouse, performed on the Minor Latham stage, or strolled through what was once called “the Jungle.” Maybe you threw a strike in the bowling alley or lobbed an ace on the tennis courts in front of Milbank Hall. Perhaps you witnessed the building of Reid Hall and Altschul in the 1960s, or were present when McIntosh came down in 2007 to make way for The Diana Center.
Since our founding, Barnard’s campus has steadily evolved, even within the confines of our four-and-one-half acres of land, and even with the complexity of managing construction in the heart of New York City. I wasn’t present for much of this history but I do know that the changes that have taken place on campus over the decades have reflected the changing needs of the College—for more classroom space and lecture halls, for state-of-the-art labs and the latest equipment, for social and meeting spaces, and new residences to accommodate our students.
Of course, with growth comes growing pains. This year’s graduating class has spent a fair amount of their time at Barnard on a campus under construction, as we have awaited our next big architectural milestone—the new Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning, which is truly a library of the future. But, in the same way that four years ago they adapted to the start of college and the independence that came with it, the Class of 2018 also adapted to a campus in transition. They walked new paths, and sought out new favorite places. They found new spots to socialize and new ways to study. They learned to be more patient and more flexible, while still making this place their own.
The Milstein Center is already making its presence felt, and it is now easy to imagine what the rooms and spaces will be like once the building is fully finished, with furniture and facilities in place. You are all invited to the building’s grand opening in October (details to come). I hope you will join us and find a space of your own within it. Like the whole of Barnard, it belongs to you. •