Debora L. Spar is the current President of Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women affiliated with Columbia University, located in New York City. Founded in 1889, Barnard attempts to give young women both the intimate setting provided by a small liberal arts college, and the resources of a large university. Debora Spar became President of Barnard College in 2008 after a teaching career at Harvard Business School. Spar is the also the author of six books and numerous articles. She recently visited the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai, where she spoke to students from ten different institutions.
What does the Barnard experience offer for women? To what extent is the experience of attending Barnard different for women when compared with other American colleges?
It’s both very different and not very different at all. You walk across Barnard and it feels like walking across Harvard, or Northwestern, or University of Chicago. It’s a big urban campus, very diverse, with men and women. They would look to be in equal proportions. But when you look more closely, what the Barnard students experience is really the best of both worlds. They get the big diverse co-ed environment when they want it but in terms of both their classes, and more importantly their extra-curricular activities, girls are the majority.
Just by definition, the president of the student body is female. The leaders of all of the clubs are female. The young women really get an opportunity to be in a female environment and to develop intellectually, personally and academically, without always being conscious of being the woman in the room.
The sense you get, even in the best universities in the U.S. is that women, even subconsciously, oftentimes feel that when they put their hand up they are giving the women’s point of view. You feel that you are somehow responsible for presenting a position, and that’s a burden. Whereas if you are in a Barnard class, you put your hand up and you are just being Deborah or Joanne, and I think that frees students to be themselves and discover themselves intellectually. By the same token, in terms of their social lives or the community life, it is this big diverse place.
Does the college have specific programs to encourage woman leadership?
We do. We have a program that’s been in place for just two or three years now, so it’s very new, but its done amazingly well. It’s called the Athena Center for Leadership Studies. It is dedicated to helping young women think about their leadership potential, and more importantly what it has really done a great job of is actually giving young women leadership skills.
There’s a lot of good talk in the U.S. and around the world about leadership, but a fair amount of it is hand waving and inspirational leadership. What we’ve tried to do is to think about what the skills are you need to run anything, a newspaper or a college or a Fortune 500 corporation. We hypothesize that there are certain skills you are going to need in any of those, and we teach those skills. We teach things like finance, negotiation, fund raising, and public speaking. So, it’s not specific to women – appropriately so because I don’t think there are women’s leadership skills, there are just leadership skills. But statistically, women seem less inclined to acquire these skills.
Do you find that among international students in particular an equal amount of girls apply and are admitted to American universities as boys?
I believe the numbers of women that apply are even. In general, this is not specific to international students, U.S. colleges are seeing more qualified women apply, and the in the U.S. we’ve actually reached a point where men to some extent are actually becoming affirmative action in college because the colleges are trying to maintain a balance between men and women. So it’s actually harder to get into an American college right now if you are a girl.
Is there a large population of international students at Barnard? Are there particular countries that students are coming from?
It’s growing – about four years ago our total international population was about three percent and now it is up to five percent. In this incoming class that just joined it was eight percent. So we’re actually growing it dramatically.
The countries where we have seen rapid growth are India and China; Europe there hasn’t been an increase because we’ve always had a steady population.
How many applicants from India and applied to Barnard College for the current freshman class, and how many were accepted? Has the percentage of Indian students, and applicants, seen a substantial change in recent years?
For the current freshman class, the college received 54 applicants from India and 13 were admitted. In 2004, the college received nine applicants from India. That represents a 500 percent increase in applicants in just seven years. The number of students from India entering in the fall of 2004 was 1 and in 2011, it was 5, representing a 400 percent increase.
Those are only students who are either permanent residents of India or citizens of India, so if you include students that are of Indian descent, the number shoots up to 130.
How many applied from China, and how many were accepted? Has the percentage of Chinese students, and applicants, seen a substantial change in recent years?
For the current freshman class, the college received 224 applications from China (including Hong Kong) and 25 were admitted. In 2004, the college received 35 applicants from China (including Hong Kong). That represents a 540 percent increase in just seven years. The number of students from China entering in the fall of 2004 was 1 (from Hong Kong) and in 2011, it was 14, representing a 1,300 percent increase.
In part, the reason for the larger increases from China is that we had a Barnard symposium in China four years ago and we’ve formed partnerships with three Chinese universities, and so we’ve really got the word out in the country. We haven’t made much of a push yet into India; this is the first time we’ve actually come here.
What is the international student experience like at Barnard? Is there an increasing number of groups on campus and such?
Yes and no. We’re not seeing so much growth simply because if you put Barnard and Columbia together, we’ve been very diverse for a long time. So we don’t have a huge number of students from India, but we have a huge number of Indian students. So I think we have three Indian dance troupes, we have several South Asian clubs and associations, fashion shows, and Holi is one of the biggest student celebrations on campus.
I think New York, and Barnard Columbia, is actually a very easy place to be an international student because New York is such an international city. My son is at Middlebury, up in Vermont. It’s a fabulous place and his best friend is from Zimbabwe but it’s hard being Zimbabwean in Middlebury — he really sticks out, whereas at Columbia he would just mix in.
How can international students applying to Barnard distinguish themselves? In other words what advice would you have for future applicants?
Right off the bat they are distinguished by the fact that they are international. We are trying to get more international students so it works in their favor. In addition to that, it’s the basics. Have good grades – your high school grades are really important. Have good scores, and for us because we are a very specific college, know why you want to be here. The problem is if we’re reading an essay that the same student wrote for Barnard and Middlebury and Northwestern and UC Berkeley. Know the college makes sense for you as an applicant.
As an Indian student graduating from this educational system and trying to apply to college in the U.S., one of the big hurdles is writing the essays. It’s the kind of essay you’ve never written till that point, and you’re not really sure what you’re meant to write. Would you have specific advice for that portion?
I think the best advice I can give, to all students not just international students, is to find your own voice. Don’t let your parents or your college counsellor write it – it’s not going to sound unique. You can have a grown-up proof read it for you, and clean up grammatical mistakes, but what you say is much less important than how you say it. You can tell the good ones, they tell a good story. It doesn’t have to mean that you’ve had some incredible adventure in your life, just tell us something about you.
What are common mistakes or misconceptions international students make when applying to Barnard or other prestigious American colleges?
Well I think the most common mistake is we see people who have tried to do a little of everything. You can almost see that they are ticking off boxes. I have to have an extracurricular activity, I have to do a sport, I have to start an NGO. Give me a genuine kid – have a passion, try and be true to yourself and don’t approach this as a box ticking activity because that comes through in the application.
How many applicants overall applied to Barnard College for the current freshman class, and how many were accepted?
We have 5,440 applicants this year and they are doing the acceptances for this year as we speak, so we don’t have the current acceptance numbers. In 2011, we had 5,153 applications, and admitted 1,283, so it’s a 23 percent acceptance rate.
What should international students applying to Barnard know before they arrive?
I think the general advice you give to anybody setting of to a place that’s quite different is – it’s different. New York is different from Mumbai, which is different than Moscow. Leave yourself open to the experience, take it slowly, spend some time getting to know the city, spend some time getting to know the country, keep your eyes and your ears open, and don’t just hangout with people from your country – I think that’s a real risk.
Particularly with Indians, because there is such a large population, it’s very easy to do. It’s an incredible experience to go to school outside of your home country. I think it’s one of the most powerful things anybody can experience in their lives, so just grab it.
Can you list a few recent alumni from India?
I think the most famous name in Jhumpa Lahiri; the writer is a Barnard alum of the late eighties, early nineties. One of our recent alumni, she’s very young, Shristi Mittal, graduated two years ago, and is now working in her father’s company. Fatima Bhutto was class of 2004, is doing very well and was named among the Young Global Leaders for 2012.