The Seven Sisters: Now and Then

My name is Jennie Ostendorf and I am a senior at Barnard College.  Barnard is a small liberal arts college located in the middle of New York City.  It is known for its rigorous academics and competes for students with schools like Georgetown University, University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan University, and NYU. But there is one quality about Barnard that sets it apart from these other institutions: Barnard only accepts female students.

(President Obama speaks at Barnard Commencement 2012 Photo Credit: Barnard College)

Since its founding in 1889, Barnard has been dedicated to the enrichment and success of women.  I can say with certainty that my college experience has been extraordinary because of Barnard’s values. Because I came to Barnard, I have met pioneers like Gloria Steinem and Anna Quindlen; studied leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Bella Abzug; worked with peers and professors who challenge and inspire me; and have learned, grown, and excelled in an environment where women can (and are expected to) do anything.

In 2009, the college opened the Athena Center for Leadership Studies with the goal of fostering and advancing women leaders.  As a member of the Athena Scholars program, I have taken a specialized academic curriculum focused on women’s leadership. The culmination of the program comes during senior year, when students design and implement a social action project.  As an avid listener of National Public Radio’s This American Life, I knew I wanted my project to be a community involvement program that incorporated stories about human experiences—but the thematic focus of my project was still unclear.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet with Sheila Gordon, Barnard Class of 1963, to discuss fundraising and development for the college and how we can form a relationship between our two classes that benefits the community at large.  We spoke about the culture of our college, how the school has changed over the years, how it has stayed the same, and how wonderful and unique Barnard is.  After speaking with Sheila, I found that I felt even more connected to my college and felt with even more conviction that Barnard and institutions like it serve a critical role in our society. I felt so lucky that I got to listen to Sheila’s experiences, and I knew I couldn’t keep her stories to myself. I had found the theme of my storytelling social action project—The Barnard College Experience: Now and Then.

I was able to sit down with Sheila again, and this time I filmed our conversation so it could be shared with our community.  Sheila discussed with me what it was like to attend a women’s college at the end of the 1950s and early 60s, when ladies were beginning to wear Bermuda shorts out in public and explore inter-racial dating.  We spoke about how Barnard students socialized during the time Sheila attended college and how the location of weekly Happy Hours for students has practically stayed the same over the past fifty years. And we talked about what it means to attend a college that is committed to women.

(Barnard College Students in 1960 Photo Credit: Barnard College Archives)

While I was working on this project with Sheila, I had to keep in mind that I was still technically working on this project as an assignment for school, and that the assignment had requirements—one of them being that the project must involve a community outside of Barnard.  Barnard is a part of the rich history of women’s education, and is a member of The Seven Sister Schools, the association of historically women’s liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern United States including Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley.  I began reaching out to these other colleges and my project The Seven Sisters: Now and Then started to take shape.

The Seven Sisters: Now and Then is a multimedia exhibit including recorded conversations between current students or recent graduates and alumnae of the Seven Sister Schools.  These conversations focus on how each respective college has changed, how each has stayed the same, the value of a women’s college education, and why these institutions should continue to exist. The mission of the project is three-fold and aims to…

1. Create a cross-generational network of women with ties to the Seven Sister schools by bringing together members from today’s generation of women’s college students with those of previous generations

2. Strengthen ties between students, alumnae, and their respective colleges

3. Provide a unique survey of the women’s college experience, both historically and presently, that is accessible to the public

To date, two installments of the project have been completed—one for Barnard and another for Smith College.

Please visit to watch video interviews about Barnard and Smith. If you are interested in contributing to the project or have questions, feedback or ideas, please contact Jennie Ostendorf at

Learn more about the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College and the Athena Scholars program at

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