Sweet Briar’s 2013-2014 Opening Convocation on Wednesday, Aug. 28, began with a moment of silence to honor the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Following the dedication, President Jo Ellen Parker announced several changes that took place at Sweet Briar this summer, including the progressing library expansion, as well as eight more classroom renovations. Over the last two years, the College has updated 15 of its learning spaces, Parker pointed out, adding that almost every student would experience the changes firsthand in at least some classes. Prothro Dining Hall also received a facelift, as did some of the kitchens and bathrooms in several residence halls.
Other facelifts were less visible, but will likely be equally significant in the years to come. Just before students arrived on campus, the faculty continued its discussion of new curriculum ideas and came to the conclusion — as Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall mentioned later — that Sweet Briar’s mission as a women’s college needed to be at the center of any curriculum changes.
“I have never known a faculty so deeply dedicated to educational integrity, student learning and institutional health,” Parker said. “I hope the whole community will follow their curricular deliberations this year with interest.”
And there was more news to share: With the support of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Sweet Briar is exploring the possibility of collaborating with Hollins University on operational activities and international education in order to be more cost-effective, Parker announced.
She ended her introduction by welcoming all 211 members of the Class of 2017 — a 13-percent increase from last year’s numbers — as well as new faculty and staff.
Next, Jessen-Marshall took the stage to share some of the questions she has been exploring with faculty as curriculum discussions continue.
“To what end do we teach?” she asked. “What is the vision for our curriculum, the purpose, the unique opportunities we offer that lead to academic success for the women who choose to come to Sweet Briar College? What experiences should a Sweet Briar Woman graduate with? What does it mean to be a women’s college in Virginia, in the United States in the year 2013? Why is this particular educational experience so valuable?”
Ultimately, she said, many of her conversations with faculty and staff revealed that everyone’s goal was “to develop young women who have grit.
“We want you, as young women going out into this world, to not just be confident, not just be articulate, not just be leaders, but to be women who have a strength of character that in the face of adversity knows how to be tenacious, knows how to stand strong and not give up when faced with a challenge,” she said.
Emilie Watts McVea Scholar Chelsea Kane ’14 had a similar message: “Be your own advocate,” she said. “Take charge of your college experience! A lot of the amazing opportunities at Sweet Briar don’t just land in your lap. If you want an internship in the summer or if you want to find a campus job, you have to advocate for yourself. … I challenge each of you to make this your opportunity to earn your rose.”
Kane’s advice to new and returning students also included doing the reading assignments and taking time to relax, both of which were received with much applause — as was associate professor of classics Eric Casey, who gave the keynote address just before Kane’s speech.
Casey had been awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award at Commencement but was unable to attend due to “getting fingerprinted in a police station in Richmond,” as he revealed now. His ‘crime,’ he added, was teaching Greek at the Governor’s Latin Academy this summer.
“It was for me a great summer for reading Greek and introducing a new cohort to the boundless charm of the squiggly letters!” he said.
After pondering the difficulties of translation — as evidenced by the many limitations of Google Translate (which, if it were Casey’s student, would be lucky to receive a 50) and the intricacies of idioms and hieroglyphic puns — Casey concluded that “[l]earning languages is much more than memorizing forms and vocabulary, but a window into another culture’s thought processes.
“The endless levels of charm and complexity in learning a language are present in every subject you will study here if you will just open your hearts to it, keep your heart in it, and don’t lose heart at the first signs of difficulty or confusion.”
And students aren’t alone, he added.
“We are all in this together and everyone in the classroom is there to learn. You are here to receive, discover and create the treasure of an education, something that is not readily available to women in some parts of the world.”
The latter is evident, he added, in this year’s Common Reading, “Half the Sky,” which also involves Kiva projects led by Honors Program and Leadership Certificate students, as well as a lecture by human rights activist Tererai Trent.
“SBC classes will be both learning about and helping women’s lives and educations.”
His final charge to students was simple: “Aim to be both creators and curators of knowledge … Accept this gift of an education, your most noble possession as mortals. … The day belongs to you.”
After conveying several academic awards to students and ROSE Awards to staff, Parker concluded the ceremony with a reflection on the many loves that brought her to Sweet Briar — from “words and the English language” to “the life and light generated when young people get excited about ideas” — and asked the audience to do the same:
“Remember the loves that brought you to this place, this time, this academic year. We are among the luckiest people on what my grandmother would have called ‘God’s green earth.’ We have the rare good fortune of being able to choose work that we love, in community with others who have chosen to be here working alongside us. Remember it, and cherish it!”