Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee will deliver the keynote address at Barnard’s commencement this May at Radio City Music Hall.
Gbowee, a social worker and women’s rights advocate, played an important role in ending Liberia’s civil war in 2003 through her leadership of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which united Muslim and Christian women in a nonviolence movement.
“Ms. Gbowee’s leadership helped galvanize an entire nation’s women to stand together against violence and end a civil war, and she continues to work tirelessly to eradicate violence against women worldwide,” Barnard President Debora Spar said in a statement.
Gbowee, who will speak at commencement on May 19, joins a list of high-profile speakers who have headlined Barnard’s commencement in recent years, including President Barack Obama, CC ’83, last year, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009, and actress Meryl Streep in 2010.
“Girls” creator and star Lena Dunham, human rights activist Jimmie Briggs, and renowned architect Elizabeth Diller, will also be awarded Barnard Medals of Distinction at the ceremony.
Students’ reactions to the announcement were largely positive, particularly when it came to Dunham.
“I think everyone is really excited about Lena Dunham, but I do think that the main keynote speaker is incredible,” Gabriella Schlussel, BC ’13, said. “She’s such a good choice for Barnard because of her political activism.”
However, some students expressed reservations over the choice of Dunham, fearing that her fame and popularity might overshadow Gbowee.
“I wish she was not going to be there because she’s overshadowing the speaker and I don’t care about her,” Sarah Moran, BC ’15, said. “Hopefully on the day of, the actual speaker will draw more attention.”
Still, seniors said that they felt optimistic about the choice of Gbowee as an inspiring speaker.
“Maybe every class thinks this, but I really believe that the class of 2013 works hard to make things happen,” Hannah Roher, BC ’13, said. “So it’s awesome to have this Liberian woman as our speaker because she’s so powerful and inspirational.”
Regarding the attention that Dunham’s inclusion in the ceremony received when the news broke, Roher added, “I don’t really like ‘Girls.’ I find it offensive and vulgar, so I don’t care about that part.”
Gwyneth Bacon-Shone, BC ’13, said she was excited about Barnard’s decision to honor Diller, who, with her firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, was an architect of the High Line, is designing two Business School buildings for Columbia’s Manhattanville campus expansion and a new education building at the Medical Center in Washington Heights.
“I’m an architecture major, so it’s finally great to see that there’s someone representing us, especially because it’s an industry with so few women,” Bacon-Shone said.
After the controversy and media attention that arose when Obama was named the keynote speaker at Barnard’s commencement last year, some students said that they were excited that Gbowee was selected to speak at the ceremony.
“I’m excited not to have somebody from a business or from social media,” Grace Winship, BC ’13, said. “I’m happy to have somebody not super famous because it overshadows the event. Harvard can have Oprah.”
“I didn’t know who Gbowee was, but I like what she stands for,” Winship said.
The ceremony was moved from campus to Radio City Music Hall to allow for more guests to attend.