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Barnard, Women’s College with Outsized Impact to Host President Obama

Carolyn Weaver

May 11, 2012

During finals week at Barnard, one of the few remaining liberal arts women’s colleges in the U.S., the pristine green campus in upper Manhattan is uncharacteristically hushed.

Young women in the student center barely look up from their books and laptops. One who does take a moment away from her studies is Barnard student government president Jessica Blank, who will share the stage at this year's commencement ceremony with President Barack Obama.

“I’ve been having serious anxiety actually as I try to write my speech,” Blank said. “Every time I think I have a great draft, I think to myself, oh well, I’m going to be saying this in front of the president of the United States, so I think it needs to be tuned up a little bit more?”

Barnard President Debora Spar said the White House has not said why President Obama asked to speak at this year’s ceremony, but she speculated that he will use the occasion to talk about renewed political battles over women’s issues, such as abortion and contraception.

“Clearly and somewhat shockingly, women’s issues have really risen to the fore in this election year,” she said. “I suspect that he and the White House are looking for an opportunity to really say something big about the current state of women in the United States.”

Barnard, one of the elite “Seven Sisters” women’s liberal arts colleges, was founded in 1889, to offer women a classical liberal arts education at a time when elite men’s colleges of the Ivy League were closed to them.

It has graduated many well-known women, from the late anthropologist Margaret Mead and the writer Zora Neale Hurston to media tycoon Martha Stewart. President Obama's half-sister, educator Maya Soetoro-Ng, is also a graduate.

The college, which has about 2,400 students, is affiliated with the much larger Columbia University, from which President Obama graduated with a degree in political science in 1983. That was the same year that Columbia began admitting women undergraduates, following Barnard’s decision to remain separate.

“We don’t at all operate under the assumption that women need to be treated differently or that women need to be cloistered away from society,” college President Spar said, noting that most Barnard and Columbia classes are open to all students. But she said that being in the majority for four years offers young women something special: a place where their gender doesn’t count.

“I spent my whole life always being ‘the woman in the room,’ and always feeling there’s an expectation and a set of assumptions that comes from that,” she said. “Here, where the room is full of women, the students can be themselves, and they don’t have to worry about that extra set of expectations. And I think that gives them a confidence and a sense of self that’s really quite magical.”

The point is seconded by students.

“The ambition here is absolutely contagious. When you see it in others, you see it in yourself,” said Sara Lederman, a graduating senior.

Jessica Blank agreed. “Although I didn’t choose Barnard because it was a women’s college, looking back it was definitely the aspect of Barnard that had the biggest impact on me,” she said. “It motivates you to do better, because you see all these incredible, extraordinary women around you.”

Barnard is one of the most expensive colleges in the U.S., with a total yearly cost of more than $55,000. About half the students receive aid, averaging $35,000 a year from state, federal and Barnard grants, according to the college’s figures. Spar said that most students don’t come from wealthy families, although the 10 percent from abroad might be an exception.

She said one reason for increasing applications from international students, who come from 53 countries, particularly South Korea, China and India, is the college’s emphasis on fostering women as leaders. That initiative since 2008 has included annual leadership symposiums held in other countries: Dubai, India, China and South Africa, so far.

Spar said “I think there’s such a recognition that this is not only a great moment to think about women’s leadership, but to really turn on the gas here and seriously try to get more women in leadership positions, in all sectors of the economy, in all parts of the world.”

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