Barnard College: Robust Liberal Arts for Women, with Columbia University Right Next Door

Two ideas stayed with me after my visit to Barnard College last Friday: (1) Impressive educational opportunity, and (2) Empowerment for women.  Barnard has taken a creative and thoughtful approach to what and how they want their students to learn.  Young women who enroll there benefit not only from the college’s relationship with Columbia University (more on that later), but also from the richness of educational opportunity that Barnard has developed on its own campus.  At the same time, the college has remained steadfast in its mission to educate and prepare women for life and career.  Our tour guide, a current senior, declared in describing her Barnard experience, “I feel empowered to take on the world.”

Enrolling at Barnard, part of Columbia University, gives students incredible, simultaneous access to a small liberal arts college and to a world-class research university. Barnard and Columbia students seamlessly integrate themselves into classes on both campuses:  Typically, both Barnard and Columbia students take 30% of their classes on the other campus.  Barnard students might enroll in computer science at Columbia, because Barnard does not currently have a “comp sci” department.  Columbia students, in turn, cross over to the west side of Broadway to take architecture or dance, both departments that Barnard offers but Columbia does not.  This integration extends to extracurricular activities as well, including Greek life, athletic teams, and more.

Barnard students choose to take 70% of their classes on their home campus for good reason:  More than 70% of classes there enroll 19 or fewer students and all classes are taught by professors who have earned tenure on both campuses.  Barnard undergrads thus get seminar-style exposure to esteemed faculty members as a matter of course.  Some of the required core courses place special emphasis on supporting women’s self-expression.  All Barnard students must take first-year seminars in both writing and speaking, through which they receive access to Writing Fellows and Speaking Fellows who support them in “speaking up and speaking out,” as our tour guide noted. Enrollment in these seminars never exceeds 15 students.

The importance of lifting up women came up over and over again in our tour.  The health care center employs a significant number of female practitioners.  Our tour guide made sure to point out that a largely female team led the design and construction of the Milstein Center, a new building (LEED v3 Silver certification targeted) that just opened on campus this past fall.  Elevating and promoting the success of women permeates the ethos of Barnard College.  As the mother of two girls (and, in the interest of full disclosure, the daughter of a Barnard alum, Class of 1962), I found myself getting excited as I imagined what Barnard could do for my own children.

I left the Barnard tour and information session feeling newly close to a place that has meant a lot in my own family.  I have my mother’s college yearbook.  Barnard women like Ellen Willis and Ruth Nemzoff – two of my mother’s closest friends – had a meaningful presence in my life.  Exploring the campus, I got to walk in the footsteps of strong Barnard women of previous generations, while feeling firmly grounded in the college’s powerful vision for the 21stcentury.