The Start of An Academic Year
Sian Beilock, President, Barnard College
The start of any academic year is an exciting time. I remember when I was a student, wondering where my education would lead me, and then again as a faculty member, hoping that I could make a difference. But this particular year is special in a new way. I now have the privilege of serving as president of Barnard College—an exceptional liberal arts college devoted to the education of young women—so I am entering it with added anticipation.
I can imagine no better place to be than Barnard. We have a world-class faculty—dedicated to teaching and passionate about research—who uphold a focus on academic excellence at the heart of all they do. Then there is our singular position as a small women’s college associated with Columbia University, a major research university just steps away. Add to that our location in New York City, with its rich culture and community, not to mention the countless doors that open for our students to internships and future careers in academia, government, non-profits and industry, and you have an unbeatable combination. Barnard is truly the best of all worlds, attracting students with diverse perspectives who think critically and challenge assumptions, and who go on to achieve great things in nearly every field of endeavor.
So it’s quite easy to be optimistic about all that lies ahead. At the same time, I admit that it’s somewhat unnerving. But being nervous is okay and expected for any student at the start of a school year, for any faculty member taking on a new position… and, I suppose, for any first-time college president. Finding ways to manage those nerves is as important as recognizing that they exist. As a cognitive scientist and professor, I’ve always been interested in how we perform at our best and how to help students succeed. I have spent the better part of my years as a scholar looking at barriers to success, especially for women and girls when it comes to math and science. I have studied how both stress and gender stereotypes can adversely affect performance and have explored what tools can be used to counteract these negative influences. Overall, my goal as an educator and now as Barnard’s President is to help young women succeed across all disciplines and in all their pursuits… career, academic and interpersonal.
That is a tall order, of course. But I can offer this advice, to students and teachers alike: it is okay to feel uncomfortable, to be challenged, to change your mind. There are many paths to success and, no matter which one you choose, there will be obstacles along the way and moments that don’t go as planned. But failure isn’t a bad thing, it’s simply another way to learn. When I bombed my first chemistry test during my first year in college, I had to work hard to turn that around. It wasn’t a disaster, it was an experience.
Whatever adventure you are about to begin, I hope you approach it with intellectual curiosity, openness, and drive. I hope that you will learn how to ask the tough questions and then go after the answers. And, I hope that when confronted with data that goes against an initial assumption, you will sometimes change your mind. I am confident that, as a result, you will have one great experience after another. #