‘And may the force be with you, always’

| May 13, 2012

A bright blue sky speckled with the occasional cloud made for perfect conditions as the Albemarle Pipes and Drums led the Class of 2012 into the quad for Sweet Briar College’s 103rd commencement on Saturday, May 12.

President Parker conferred degrees to a total of 153 undergraduate and 11 graduate candidates cheered on by a large crowd of family, friends, faculty, students and alumnae. For the first time, Amy Jessen-Marshall participated in the ceremony as Dean of the Faculty.

“I promise you, she has been wandering around muttering your names for days,” Parker assured the graduates.

Before calling each one of them to the stage, Parker introduced three students, beginning with class president Alexandra St. Pierre. In her speech, St. Pierre reflected on the value of knowledge.

“The various pieces of regalia that I am permitted to wear today are meant to indicate that I know quite a bit,” she said. “But the truth is that what I know best is in fact how very much I do not know.”

Knowledge, she added, was often measured in the amount of right answers on an exam, but no matter how much one learned, there was always so much more to find out.

“The most valuable aspect of my education was coming to appreciate the vast breadth of knowledge which is yet beyond my reach,” she said.

St. Pierre, who majored in classics with minors in biology and music, was recently named the Presidential Medalist for her intellectual achievement and her distinction in a combination of community service, contribution to the arts, global awareness, fitness and athletic achievement, and leadership, civility and integrity.

But, as she explained to an amused audience, her real expertise lies outside of academia: After being introduced to Star Wars by her grandfather, who passed away when she was 9, St. Pierre was “forever after a Jedi.” As a Star Wars expert, she’s aware that much of its story doesn’t rely on scientific fact.

“If the films had been grounded in knowledge, they would be silent,” she said. “Why then, do we place so much value on knowing?”

St. Pierre went on to explain that, while ignorance was certainly dangerous because it “breeds misunderstanding and hatred and fear,” so is presuming that we know everything because it makes us feel superior. Worse yet, she added, we stop asking questions.

“When we assume that we know a group, an ideal or a person, we lose the ability to inquire and investigate,” she said. “Be confident in the knowledge you have worked hard to accrue, but never assume that you know something or someone in their entirety. Never cease to inquire, to investigate, to be curious and to be adventurous. Refuse to settle for what you think you understand and continually seek a new perspective … May you always bear the rose after conquering its thorns and may the Force be with you, always.”

As president of the Student Government Association, Lauren Leigh Alkire presented the Shirley P. Reid Excellence in Service Award, given each year by the SGA to a staff member. This year, she said, there was overwhelming consensus across campus that Marco Spencer, line server and cook for Aramark, deserved the award. Her announcement was confirmed by enthusiastic cheers from students, faculty and staff as Spencer entered the stage.

Carrie Brown, associate professor of English and Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, fought back tears as Stephanie Prato, chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, named her the SGA’s annual Connie Burwell White Excellence in Teaching Award recipient.

Prato said Brown, who always encouraged students to be involved on and off campus, embodied what a Sweet Briar education was all about. Among other nominations, she read one student’s note, which thanked Brown for the “tremendous impact” she had made on the student’s academic career.

“We have a difficult time imagining this place without her,” Prato concluded. Brown recently accepted a one-year position as visiting professor of creative writing at Hollins University.

“Embracing New Horizons” was the theme of keynote speaker Dr. Vivian Pinn’s address. Pinn is a Lynchburg native and former director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health. She got her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and in 1967 received her medical degree from the University of Virginia as the only woman and only African-American student in her class.

While Pinn said that she would have liked to attend Sweet Briar if it had been an option for her, she commended the College for its efforts to promote and increase diversity on campus. Having gone to a women’s college herself and confronting gender discrimination in the late 1950s and ’60s, Pinn reminded her audience of the opportunities that have emerged for women since then — and of the challenges that remain.

“When you wisely selected Sweet Briar as the institution to prepare you for your future careers and lives, you knew that this college has as its mission to prepare young women to excel in the modern world. Today, you will be going forward to do just that — in a world that has expanded far beyond horizons that the founders of this college could even have imagined 100 years ago,” she said.

Not only was our world today much larger because “advances in technology, transportation and globalization have brought the far reaching corners of this earth into our immediate scope,” Pinn said, but there was also “a world of opportunity for women today unparalleled in previous times … There is nothing that can or should stop you from gaining personal fulfillment through contributions that can and will make a difference in the lives of the diverse peoples and communities of those new horizons.”

Pinn recognized the difficulties of balancing family and career for women today, but said that they could be successful regardless of the career path they chose, or of the recognition they received.

“As Helen Keller phrased the value of the efforts of each one of us: ‘The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of the heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.’ Be heroines, or heroes, with either mighty shoves, or many tiny pushes, whether publicly or privately recognized, for you possess the learning and integrity and fortitude and strength of mind to do so.”

Before leaving the stage, Pinn urged her audience to “avoid the path of least resistance … never lose sight of who you are [and] … have a lifetime commitment to high ideals and integrity … By all means, make a decent living, but while you’re at it, build an honorable life of giving through the work that makes you feel affluent beyond your dreams …. Think with your brains, but also with your souls and your inner sense of decency and compassion for others.”

In her charge to the Class of 2012, Parker shared Pinn’s sentiment.

“Graduates, today we honor all that you have achieved,” she said. “You have been given the precious gift of a first-rate education. Much thought, time, care and love have been committed to you to bring you to this day, and as a result your life going forward will be immeasurably enriched. What is required of you … is to make sure that the lives of others are equally enriched because of the education you have received. Make the world a better place because there are now more Sweet Briar women in it.”

Contact: Janika Carey


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