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YWCA CEO Dara Richardson-Heron, BC ’85, discusses leadership, overcoming hardships at Barnard’s 126th convocation

Chief Executive Officer of YWCA Dara Richardson-Heron, BC ’85, inspired students at Barnard’s 126th convocation to take on challenges headfirst and lead with passion, as she shared her experiences overcoming sexism, breast cancer, and discrimination.

Richardson-Heron, who spoke to a crowd of over 500 students, alumni, and faculty at Riverside Church Thursday afternoon, began her speech by affirming the significance of Barnard as a place for trailblazers.

“At orientation when we were told, ‘Barnard women change the world and the way we think about it,’ it was at that point that I knew for sure that I was at the right place,” Richardson-Heron said.

As the CEO of YWCA, Richardson-Heron works to empower women and end racism. Her speech touched on these issues and others that have inspired her passion for social justice.

“My dad told me that by the time I reached the ripe old age of two, it was quite clear that he was in for a real treat,” she said. “I always resisted the notion that I, in any way, would be limited by my gender.”

Richardson-Heron also shared her experience with breast cancer, which she said had been devastating. But rather than let it destroy her, Richardson-Heron said she had a sudden change of perspective that inspired her to do more.

“One day, instead of asking the question, ‘Why me?’ I asked, ‘Why not me? What makes me think I’m so special that I should be exempt from life’s challenges and obstacles?’” Richardson-Heron said.

“Sometimes when life throws you a curveball, you have to put on your big girl pants and figure out how to catch it,” she added. “My challenge and devastating setback helped prepare me for a major comeback.”

Like Richardson-Heron, Barnard President Debora Spar also discussed how inner turmoil could be used to inspire change.

“You are here to figure out how and for what purposes to be truly angry, to learn how to argue effectively, and to use your arguments to make things happen,” Spar said.

Spar also spoke about the importance of Barnard as a women’s college, even today.

“Women face an onslaught of everyday aggressions that only rarely impede upon the lives of men,” Spar said. “These asymmetries and inequities and annoyances simply don't happen at Barnard because we are a place where, by definition, girls rule.”

Before Spar, Student Government Association President Shivani Vikuntam, BC ’16, discussed big changes underway for Barnard, referencing the new trans admissions policy—to cheers from the audience—and the new curriculum, Foundations.

Alumnae in attendance said coming to convocation served as a reminder of how important Barnard was in their lives.

“It was so spectacular,” Joyce Stern, BC ’60, said. “I think my appreciation for Barnard has just grown with the years and looking back, I just realize I would not have achieved what I achieved in life without the fabulous Barnard education.”

“I think these women are incredible, amazing role models, and it really moved me to be back,” Lynn Kestin Sessler, BC ’84, said. “Barnard means everything to me, to be honest with you. It started me off on a wonderful career path. I have amazing friends for life from attending here.”

For Erin Deebel, BC ’16, convocation was especially moving since it was her last as a student.

“You don’t realize how sad you are to leave until you get here and hear those inspirational words from Debora Spar and the rest of the college faculty,” Deebel said. “I feel blessed to be here, to have heard them, and to have another semester here.”  

Josie Hirsch and Aubri Juhasz contributed reporting | @jclarachan



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