The following is a conversation between Sian Beilock, President of Barnard College, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: There may be some in the audience who go back far enough to remember the commercials for Doublemint chewing gum, where a set of twins would tell us how you would receive “double the pleasure” from a single stick of gum, or something like that. I feel a little bit that way about my next guest. She is the president of one of the most prestigious colleges in America, as well as a preeminent cognitive scientist doing groundbreaking research. And as you’ll soon hear, the two are quite related. She is Sian Beilock, the eighth president of Barnard College and the author of a number of books including Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.
Good evening, Sian, and welcome to the Business of Giving!
Sian: Thanks for having me.
Denver: Let’s begin with the college. Barnard was founded in 1889. Share with us a bit of the history of the institution and the relationship it has had with Columbia University.
Sian: Well, Barnard was founded as a place where women could have an education that wasn’t otherwise available to them at Columbia. Now, it is a standalone institution, but I really think of it as the gem of Columbia. We have an agreement with Columbia that governs how we interact. All of our classes are cross-listed, so students at Columbia take classes at Barnard; Barnard, students take classes at Columbia. Our faculty are tenured at both institutions, but really devoted to working closely with our students. And then our students have academic opportunities across both institutions. They come out with a degree from Barnard College, focused on empowering women, and Columbia University.
Denver: That’s pretty nice. Barnard College has graduated so many prominent leaders in every imaginable field and discipline. Who are some of your notable alums?
Sian: We have many. We have fantastic writers and authors. A recent alum who has gotten a lot of attention for her directing work, Greta Gerwig, who directed Lady Bird. Authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Zora Neale Hurston. One of my personal favorites, Carol Dweck, who is a psychologist and a scientist. And actually now, Barnard’s graduates are over one-third math and science majors.
Research shows that seeing people like you succeeding is a really important factor in your own ideas about, say, women in leadership. Sixty percent of our faculty are women; our leaders are women. And when women see other women succeeding in that way, they think that they can do it. They think they can lead. They think they can pursue their passion.
Denver: That’s incredibly impressive. And as you and I were talking before we went on the air, half my guests seem to be Barnard alums: Ellen Futter from the American Museum of Natural History; Rhea Suh from the Natural Resources Defense Council; and Helene Gayle from the Chicago Community Trust
Barnard is, I guess, one of the Seven Sisters or the so-called Seven Sisters. They’re all women colleges, such as Wellesley and Mount Holyoke. What do you believe, Sian, are some of the advantages of attending an all-women’s college?
Sian: I do want to say that I think Barnard is a special place, first of all, because it’s really the best of all worlds. We’re focused on empowering women to go out and pursue their passion, and we have this tight-knit community. But because we have this relationship with Columbia, students can choose how much they want to focus just in an all-women environment, but also take classes, do sports. Our women compete on the Division I Columbia sports teams.
Denver: Almost unheard of when you think about that.
Sian: It’s amazing. We just had our first national champion in fencing. It’s really great. But you know what I say when people say “Why a women’s college?” There are so many ways to do education, I think, first, that’s true, but we know that there are certain things that women’s colleges tend to afford students that we know have an impact.
So, we know, for example, research shows that seeing people like you succeeding is a really important factor in your own ideas about, say, women in leadership. Sixty percent of our faculty are women; our leaders are women. And when women see other women succeeding in that way, they think that they can do it. They think they can lead. They think they can pursue their passion.
We also know that talking explicitly about gendered issues, whether it’s imposter syndrome – this idea that tends to happen more in women than in men– that you feel like you’ve sort of tricked everyone into believing you can be there, talking about self-confidence, talking about what it’s like to be in male-dominated boardrooms — these sorts of explicit conversations help women figure out how to really break barriers. And those are the kinds of things you get at Barnard that you might not get at a co-ed institution.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about the foundation’s curriculum and how that helps prepare Barnard students.
Sian: So we have a new curriculum, relatively new. It’s about four years old called Foundations. The idea is really that what we’re teaching at a school like Barnard is how to think. We’re not teaching our young women what to think – that’s an important distinction – but we’re teaching them how to think. The idea behind that is that you have to take a broad base of classes across the Arts and Sciences. So you have a major, but we also ask all of our students to take a very intensive year of writing. Part of that is writing with a senior faculty member in small group seminars, and it could be writing in English, but it could also be connected to a science class.
We also ask all of our students to take classes that get them to think computationally and digitally. It’s our firm belief that whether you’re a science major or a history major, you need to be facile with data, with computation. You need to at least be a good consumer. We ask our students to take classes to get them to think empirically. We want our students to look at a piece of data in a newspaper, or with their business or nonprofit, and make conclusions for themselves about what it means.
And something we really push is that your major does not dictate your career path. Do something that you’re passionate about.
Denver: That’s great because even though over a third of your graduates are STEM majors, you really do promote the Arts and Humanities. And just from what you said, it just is the importance of being able to connect the dots in an uncertain world because we don’t know what it’s going to look like or what’s going to be needed 10 or 20 years from now.
Sian: We’re teaching our students, again, how to think, and that’s not in one particular area per se. We know that employers, graduate schools – they want students who just have the foundation to be able to be creative, to understand data. It’s this false idea that you need one set of skills to go to industry and another set to go get a PhD in Sociology. It’s the same skill set. You need to be able to write well, communicate, articulate an idea, work with data. You can get that from any major.
And something we really push is that your major does not dictate your career path. Do something that you’re passionate about. We have amazing English majors working in publishing, writing novels, winning Pulitzers, but working at Google, working in the financial industry, working in nonprofits. And we have scientists who go out to the best med schools but also to work in science writing, or end up in a different field completely.
Denver: Another way you try to prepare your students is through this initiative called Beyond Barnard. Tell us about that.
Sian: So I’ve now been president for two years, and one of the things that I really noticed when I got to Barnard is that there wasn’t one central place for students to go to start thinking about internships, fellowships, to connect with our 35,000 amazing alumnae-– women who are there to help support and fight for our students. And so, we basically blew up the traditional model of career advising. We took our career shop, our pre-grad, our premed, our fellowships, and put it in one office and initiative called Beyond Barnard. The idea is that from day one, students should go to Beyond Barnard to start just exploring what’s out there, whether it’s a first internship – 75% of our students do internships in New York City – fellowships, what alumnae have done with particular careers, and it might be that a student is interested in med school and realizes that she wants to go off in a different area or vice versa.
So Beyond Barnard is this one-stop shop. One thing that’s really nice about it as well is that it’s not just for our students, it’s for alums. It’s lifelong. So in our first year, we had 4,000 people use it. Amazing. And about a quarter were alumnae. So some were within five years out, like maybe thinking about grad school or law school, but then we had another group of alums who were coming back and interested in coming back into the workforce after having children. And what we’ve seen is that companies are really interested in pairing with us, not only to recruit our undergraduates who are graduating, but also women at these different levels.
And so we really think about Beyond Barnard as a new model for how to think about how to promote our students, and we’ve been successful. For our class that graduated in 2018, within six months, 93% were working or in a graduate or a professional program.
…the one commonality among successful women that we hear, is that they jumped at opportunities that they weren’t necessarily thinking were coming.
Denver: Very impressive. Well, that’s a great service, and it’s a wonderful way to keep alums connected to the college.
You mentioned New York City before; 75% of the young people there have internships. New York City, in a way, is your lab, isn’t it?
Sian: I might be a little biased, but I think about it as the best college campus in the country. I mean, it really is. We’re so fortunate to be on the Upper West Side in Morningside Heights, which really is a nice campus community, with Barnard and Columbia. But then our students go all over the city for internships, or to visit an alum for a day, a workplace trek. We have bring-students-to-work-day a lot with our alumnae, our parents.
And then of course being at Barnard, we also get fantastic women in all sorts of professions visiting, to talk to our students, to tell them about their career path and mostly to get across the point that it’s nonlinear; it’s not predictable, and that what really, if I had to say, what is the one commonality among successful women that we hear, is that they jumped at opportunities that they weren’t necessarily thinking were coming.
Denver: I also know that the other day that you got a nice grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation on something called the Public Engagement Initiative. What is that about?
Sian: We just received a million-dollar grant from Mellon, who’s been a great supporter, and it’s really to carry out a lot of the work that our faculty already do. One thing I think that’s unique about Barnard is that our faculty not only are doing amazing basic research and scholarship, but a lot of them are engaged with the community, outward facing. We think about our campus as being really porous. And so we have faculty that for their classes and research pair, for example, with nonprofits and actually work with the nonprofits, both as a way to teach students about what’s going on in important topics like immigration, or thinking about economic equality for single mothers. The students actually work with those nonprofits. So they maybe collect data for the nonprofits, or help write reports so they can advocate for an additional federal or state funding. This money is really to support the creation of a program where our faculty can pair with these great nonprofit entities, so our students learn and also contribute.
Denver: Very cool. Let’s talk a little bit more about the faculty and the administration as well, and that has to do with the corporate culture. What’s it like to work at Barnard? What do you do to help shape and influence the workplace?
Sian: I will say that at Barnard, the faculty, the staff are amazingly dedicated to the institution. I think when you have a mission, which is really about empowering women… and I don’t think there’s ever been a more important time to think about sending those next generations of women out, people really rally behind it. And so, it’s a university culture whereby there’s faculty governance. I don’t get to call all the shots, but I work in tandem with the faculty to really think about what the values of the institution are, and how we’re going to enact them.
I think that students should be judged based on what they bring to the table, not just across grades and scores, but what they bring to the table holistically. And it’s unfortunate when that doesn’t happen.
Denver: And before we get onto your research in cognitive science, let me just ask you one question I know is on a lot of people’s minds, and that has to do with the recent college admissions scandal. Were you surprised at all by it?
Sian: I think I was surprised. I believe very strongly in the integrity of the admissions process. And at Barnard, we’re need-blind in our admissions. We don’t look at financial need, and we go through an intensive process, a holistic admissions process to bring our students in. I think that students should be judged based on what they bring to the table, not just across grades and scores, but what they bring to the table holistically. And it’s unfortunate when that doesn’t happen.
Denver: Do you think there should be any preferential treatment for children of alums, or perhaps a family member of a big donor? How do you feel about that?
Sian: Well, we do not engage in any quid pro quo, and we really are need-blind in how we look at our students. So, we at Barnard do group-think; we really believe in that, and I know my research focuses on that as well – the power of having multiple people around the table. We bring multiple people together to look at each application. It takes time; it takes resources, but it allows us to get the best possible student. And because of our definition of being need-blind, we’re not looking at financial resources when students come in.
Denver: In addition to your presidential duties, you’re also, as we mentioned, a cognitive scientist, having authored I think over a hundred research papers. That’s amazing. When did you first know that you were interested in cognitive science?
Sian: Well, I come from a family of lawyers, and so I just assumed I would be a lawyer until my mother, a lawyer, spent a whole summer while I was in college taking me out to lunch with every unhappy lawyer she knew.
Denver: They’re not hard to find.
Sian: It wasn’t that she didn’t want me to be a lawyer, but she wanted me to know there were other opportunities out there. And that’s actually one of the ideas behind the Beyond Barnard initiative, is actually opening up what students understand about what career paths are out there, because I think students often don’t know all the different careers.
And so after going out to lunch with all the unhappy lawyers, I started thinking what other things were out there. I went to a panel of women scientists, and I heard a biologist speak about how her entire career had been failures, like every experiment she’d done hadn’t worked. This biologist later went on to win a Nobel Prize, so that was leading up to success. But I thought, “My God, you could be a scientist and have failed, and that’s okay.” And I was just totally intrigued. And then I got to college, and I realized you could have the science of studying human performance – why people succeeded, why people failed – and I was just fascinated with that.
When you start thinking too much, you actually disrupt your performance.
Denver: Well, as I mentioned in the open, you wrote a book on choking, the inability for a person to come through when the stakes are the highest, like at the very end of a close game. Why do people choke?
Sian: Well, a lot of it comes down to overthinking actually. I think at that big game, we often hear the coaches yelling, or when we go into that important interview, we think “concentrate, concentrate.” And a lot of what my research has shown is in those moments, it’s best to go on autopilot. When you start thinking too much, you actually disrupt your performance. It’s kind of like if you were shuffling down the stairs, and I asked you to think about what you were doing with your knee, you’d probably fall on your face because you’re putting too much attention to something that runs outside of consciousness.
Denver: Somebody asked me once to sign my name; I did. And then they asked me to trace it, and it was…my hand shook, and you just can’t do it!
Sian: Yes. I mean, if you want to mess up your buddy on the back nine, you say, “Hey, that was a great shot. What were you doing with your elbow?”
…you have to mimic as much as possible the kinds of conditions you’re going to perform under because that gets you used to what happens in these situations.
Denver: I usually say, “Don’t hit it in the water.”
So, okay, I’ve got to go on autopilot. How do I do that?
Sian: Practice. And not just practice, but practicing under the kinds of conditions you’re going to perform under. I think a lot of people think, “Oh, I’ve got this information.” Maybe they’ve looked at their notes before they go in for a big pitch or presentation, or they practice shooting free throws when no one’s watching. But what my research and others’ has shown is that you have to mimic as much as possible the kinds of conditions you’re going to perform under because that gets you used to what happens in these situations.
Sian: So if you’re giving a pitch, or a talk, or even a toast at a wedding, videotape yourself. Practice in front of someone else. If no one’s willing to watch you, practice in front of the mirror. Anything to increase that self-consciousness so that you’re used to what’s going to happen in the big moment.
…we showed that giving students the opportunity to reframe their anxiety before they took the test – so rather than thinking about those sweaty palms and beating heart as a sign you’re going to fail, but instead as a sign that that beating heart is shunting blood to your brain so you can think – reframing your anxiety could help the worry stop, and then perform better.
Denver: You’ve also researched test anxiety with a particular focus on low-income students taking STEM exams. Now, what do we learn from that research?
Sian: So really the take-home of my work and my research is: it’s not just about what you know, how you think, your motivations; your anxieties are really important. And so, in a lot of my work, we’ve been looking at ways to help people who might be really anxious in testing situations do better.
We know there’s an achievement gap in terms of income. Low-income students tend to do worse, say, on standardized tests. I’ve argued that part of that is just because they’re worried about how they might look, confirming stereotypes about how they should perform. And so we did a study across an entire high school where there was an income gap in science tests, and we showed that giving students the opportunity to reframe their anxiety before they took the test – so rather than thinking about those sweaty palms and beating heart as a sign you’re going to fail, but instead as a sign that that beating heart is shunting blood to your brain so you can think – reframing your anxiety could help the worry stop, and then perform better.
So we did a study where we had some of the students reframe their anxiety before they took the test, and we showed that we could significantly bump up the course passing rate for low-income students.
…when we praise ability, what it’s suggesting to the kid is that they either have it, or they don’t; and so then they don’t want to fail, and they don’t want to try.
Denver: Fantastic. It’s very important to get more girls into science and math and close the gender gap in STEM, and the way we talk to girls about this can make a significant difference. How should we talk to girls about this? Or perhaps I could ask: How do you talk to your eight-year-old daughter about it?
Sian: I think this is a little bit counterintuitive. Oftentimes, we want to praise ability, for example. So to say, “Oh, you’re so smart,” or “I can see you’re naturally talented at that,” but research by a Barnard alum Carol Dweck shows that we should actually be praising effort. Because when we praise ability, what it’s suggesting to the kid is that they either have it, or they don’t; and so then they don’t want to fail, and they don’t want to try.
So, when I’m talking to my daughter and she’s doing math homework or a science game, I can say, “I can see you’re trying really hard there.” I also talk to her about how she’s doing science, rather than being a scientist. One of her favorite things to do is, whenever we go out to eat, and we sometimes get a whole fish because we like that, she loves to take the eyeballs out. It’s a little morbid, but she just loves it.
Denver: She’s eight, right?
Sian: She’s eight. And I say, “Oh, I can see her you’re doing science. You’re really investigating this.” And then for a while, she wanted to be a coroner because she asked, “What job do you get when you take things like eyes?” and I said, “You could be a coroner!”
Denver: Well, that’s really an interesting distinction. You know, I never really thought about that before in terms of the difference that could make– in terms of doing or being.
Sian: I think when you say “Oh, you can be a scientist,” the concern is that young girls see so many examples of them not being in that category. And so, what you want to show is that they’re actually doing it, whether it’s dissecting the fish, or measuring to make something in the kitchen, or even putting paint colors together… figuring out how to kick the ball so it goes in the goal. These are all things that involve physics and chemistry. They’re doing science.
Denver: You have spent years, Sian, observing what causes self-doubt, particularly in women, among women in male-dominated fields. Speak to those self-doubts and what advice would you have to help women in these circumstances?
Sian: I think we often, first of all, we all have self-doubt, whether you’re a man or a woman. But what my research and others have shown is that in fields where you or your group has been traditionally excluded, those self-doubts can be particularly pernicious because not only are you trying to do your best, but you might be trying to prove that you should be there. And those self-doubts end up being like you’re doing two things at once – you’re trying to focus on what you’re doing, and you’re also worrying at the same time. It’s like driving and talking on the cell phone. So, my goal has been to find techniques to help hang the cell phone up so you can just perform at your best.
So we’ve looked at all sorts of different things. One technique is actually: before you go into an important situation is just to jot your worries down on paper. It’s almost like downloading them from the mind so they’re less likely to pop up and distract you.
Denver: That’s a little counterintuitive, too, because sometimes people would try to just bury that, but by getting them out there actually helps.
Sian: Yes. It’s like you’re downloading them, and sometimes you actually gain insight, right? It’s kind of like that really nasty email you write. You’re never going to send it, but you write it to someone. And you realize by the end that it’s not as bad of a situation; so you gain some insight into what’s going on.
Denver: Good point.
Sian: Also, just focusing on why you are going to succeed instead of letting our mind wander to all the reasons we should fail. What are the three reasons you’re going to succeed? How do you control this situation? You’ve prepared. You know more than anyone else. The questions you’re going to get… you can answer all of them. And even focusing on the take-home point: What do you want to get across? Like no matter what else happens, what’s the one thing…
Denver: So it’s more of: why I should be here, as opposed to why I should not be here.
Sian: Exactly. Our mind can wander to very negative things, and the idea is that we can control it back.
Denver: In another one of your books How The Body Knows Its Mind, you talk about embodied cognition. What is it? How does it work?
Sian: Embodied cognition, I think we all experience it all the time. It’s the idea that all the thinking doesn’t just happen in the head. Our environment influences how we feel, and it’s not just that our mind tells our body what to do, but our body has an effect back up. So if you’re all slumped down and you look defeated, that’s sending signals to your brain about how you should feel.
Likewise, what our environment is, matters. There’s really interesting research showing that being in nature can help us think better, can help us concentrate. It gives us a break; especially when we’re in a city environment all day, we’re constantly flexing…what I talk about… is our cognitive muscle, our ability to focus. And looking at trees, being in the park sort of gives that muscle time to rest, so that we’re better able to concentrate. And so, whether it’s a short walk in the woods, exercise, thinking about your surroundings… in terms of doing the best thinking… is going to be to your advantage.
Denver: Has there been any particular aspect of your research that you’ve applied to your own career?
Sian: So I do some “me-search” instead of research.
Denver: “Me-search,” that’s a good name for it.
Sian: I definitely use a lot of the cognitive strategies that we’ve explored in terms of going into stressful situations. So I remind myself about what the take-home point is I want to get across, that I should be there more than anyone else. I do the sorts of building exercises of self-confidence and self-esteem that we know to really focus the brain in the right way.
Denver: Let me get back to college for a moment. Running a college is like running a nation-state, someone said. I mean, there is so much to do and so many different constituencies. And given that no two days are the same, and also given your continuing with this research, how do you spend your time? How do you prioritize with all the competing claims on that time for your attention?
Sian: Well, I think as a college president, one of the most important goals is to make sure that you have the resources to run the kind of institution you want to run. So I spend a lot of time talking about why Barnard is so special, the power of philanthropy in American institutions– which are run on philanthropy– and really making connections and relationships– listening, hearing from alums, parents. That’s where I spend a large part of my time.
And then for me, it’s really having the right team around the table. I am a very sort of communal leader. I like push-back in my senior team to get to the best decision.
Denver: You like being challenged, don’t you?
Sian. I do. I think it’s having really good people and trusting that they’re able to execute and to oversee the areas that they’re in charge of.
Denver: Let me close with this, Sian. When you get together with a group of other college presidents, what issues are you universally concerned about? And are there any potential remedies that are being discussed?
Sian: One issue that we’ve been thinking about a lot at Barnard – and I know this is not just exclusive to Barnard – is students’ mental health and wellness. We are bringing the best young women in the country to Barnard. They are extremely competent. They’ve worked extremely hard to get there. But really, one of the things that I think a college or university needs to do today is not only prepare students academically, but prepare them… their whole self: How do we help students design their life? To understand what it means to have balance? To figure out resiliency? To understand failure? And so, we’ve been thinking a lot, and this is a discussion I’ve had with lots of college presidents, about: What are the kinds of things that complement what happens in the classroom?
So at Barnard, we have a group of peer educators called Well Women who work with students on everything from meditation, to thinking about stress and anxiety. We’ve been thinking about what this looks like in terms of exercise and eating right, getting our students to come out, understanding the whole environment. Everything from health and wellness to financial fluency. How do you do your taxes? How do you think about investing?
My goal is to put women out who are going to go out and change the world and that requires a whole tool set.
Denver: That’s a wonderful note to close on. Well, Sian Beilock, the President of Barnard College, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Now, for those who want to learn more about the school, your website is barnard.edu. But for listeners who want to dig a little deeper into your research, how can they go about doing that?
Denver: And me, as a matter of fact. Well, thanks, Sian. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Sian: Nice to be here.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of the Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.