To celebrate 50 years of coeducation at Kenyon, we’re profiling three dozen of Kenyon alumnae during the 2019-20 academic year. These women, merely a small sample of the thousands of female graduates who have earned Kenyon degrees since 1969, will discuss their undergraduate experiences and how their education in Gambier prepared them for their lives and careers.
The 25th alumna in our series is journalist Vicki Barker ’78 H’96, who majored in English and German at Kenyon and also holds masters degrees from Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities. Originally from New Jersey and now living in London, Barker works as a freelance correspondent for CBS Radio and NPR, and previously worked for CNN and the BBC, among other news outlets. The New York Times profiled Barker on the occasion of her 2014 marriage to British filmmaker Bill Cran.
How do you prioritize your life and get things done?
The little picture: lists, lists, lists! The big picture: In my 50s, involved with my now-husband, a widower with children, I finally learned how to say “no” to a newsdesk: no to going to that war zone when the girls were still young; no to spending more than 10 days away from the family. My husband was just out of the hospital after foot surgery a couple of years ago when a major terror attack struck France. But I couldn’t, wouldn’t, go because I was his sole caretaker.
I write this in the full knowledge that, at this stage in my career, I have earned the luxury of saying no … it’s sobering and humbling to think of how many of my female colleagues had to do this kind of juggling so much earlier in their careers.
Where did you first discover your power?
Which power? My power as a journalist? Hmm, perhaps in Peirce Dining Hall, walking past rows of booing fraternity men furious at the Collegian’s reporting on Old Kenyon going co-ed! That was an early lesson in the power, and burdens, of journalism! But my mentor and predecessor as editor, Matt Winkler [’77 H’00 P’13], had weathered even tougher storms: reporting, for instance, about a particularly ugly tenure battle that had raised all sorts of uncomfortable questions about sexism and fairness among the Kenyon faculty in the 1970s.
Or perhaps you mean my power as a woman? I’m still learning, as the #metoo movement grows, how accustomed all of us women were to not having a voice in national and international conversations. And now I’ll pick up a newspaper and read an article about, say, women directors talking about their industry heroes, and realize: oh, professional, articulate women being asked their opinions about something other than love, or sex, or children, or balancing careers and children. Just, wow.
Who at Kenyon inspired you?
But in particular I must mention my German advisor, [the late Professor of German] Ed Hecht [P’84 H’99], whose grouchy, goading presence hid a heart of gold and a passionate commitment to his students. He remained a father figure to me all his life (and my German-born mother sent him Christmas cards in Low German for 40 years).
And I was inspired by my fellow students, some of whom remain my dearest friends deep into our fifth post-Kenyon decade. That we all got to spend four years on this Magic Mountain and think big thoughts with nurturing, challenging teachers who were focused on our development, not some publish-or-perish quota: what a gift.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“There’s no job in the world worth crying over.”
How has your worldview evolved since leaving Kenyon?
I can hold two things in my hands at the same time: the fact that I now see the extent to which the Kenyon campus back then was a bubble of privilege — of white privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege — does not in any way devalue what I learned and lived there, or the people who lived with and taught me. But the world is a big place, with pretty ugly imbalances of wealth and power. My work has put me in contact with some of the nastiest things people do to each other, and my worldview has had to evolve to make sense of that.
And, this truth: I’ve had my sanity saved multiple times by being able to call up a few lines of Yeats, or Auden, or Rilke … the authors who have been my touchstones since I left Gambier in 1978.
A liberal arts education is the gift that keeps on giving.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read about the previous woman in our series: Carla Ainsworth ’95
Read about the next woman in our series: Brooke Hauser ’01