November, 2008 -- I, like many college freshmen, was in my pajamas, excitedly staring at the TV in the lobby of my dorm as snacks were passed around, watching state after state announce that Barack Obama was one state closer to winning the presidency. It was a night of firsts -- it was the first major political moment I experienced at Barnard -- a place where rallies and debates and political discussions are as common as discussions about the upcoming weekend's parties. It was, for me and for most other freshmen at Barnard, the first election in which we were eligible to vote. It was the first night that I felt that actual change was a legitimate possibility for this country. It was the night that, for the first time, America would elect a president of color.
I chose to come to Barnard because I wanted to become a writer and I knew it was a place where I could do that. I was sick of being told that writing isn't a viable career choice, being reminded of the minuscule percentage of aspiring writers that actually make something of themselves, and being warned of the painful lifestyle required of writers, the solitary nature of the work, the low pay, the constant rejection. When Zora Neale Hurston applied to transfer from Howard University to Barnard she listed as one of her reasons for desiring transfer, "I have had some small success as a writer and wish above all to succeed at it." Zora Neale Hurston, Diana Chang, Erica Jong, Mary Gordon, Anna Quindlen, Jhumpa Lahiri had all gone to Barnard and had become writers. I would too.
As soon as I entered Barnard I realized my hopes of becoming a writer would no longer be challenged. Barnard was a place where students were expected to do what they wanted, to not take no for an answer, to reach far beyond the prescribed roles they had been given. It was teeming with women like me, who had been told no and had decided yes. Women who wanted to become cardiac surgeons despite the warnings that balancing a surgeon's schedule and motherhood was nearly impossible. Women who wanted to break into politics at a time when Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign was rocking the nation. Women who were brave enough to say that they were going to be chemists, engineers, artists. Women who weren't afraid to say they wanted to be mothers. And regardless of the career paths we have chosen to take, we will graduate from Barnard strong women who are not afraid to challenge expectations.
Barnard has told us, quite simply, that yes we can. And we will.
I look back on that night that we all sat in the lobby of the dorm waiting to see if our country would actually elect Barack Obama and realize that there is no person better suited to speak at our graduation. Regardless of your political leanings, it is undeniable that Obama represented excitement, a political vigor that had too long been absent from this country, opportunity, possibility, and above all, hope. His choice to speak at Barnard, while obviously political, illustrates that people are finally recognizing that women can no longer be ignored and that our voice matters, even in the world of politics. And that perhaps, just as Obama's election proved, we are inching ever so slowly closer to a world where underdogs actually stand a chance.
I remember watching as the Obama family took the stage and seeing Sasha and Malia, the two little girls who would soon be living in the White House. It was so incredible to me that these girls would grow up in a world where a black president could be elected. Where a woman had finally been considered a viable candidate. A world where, hopefully, they would be encouraged to explore any career path they so wished. A world, to be quite honest, that looked a lot more like the world Barnard has been providing for students for over a century.