‘Learning on the Land’ Acquaints Students with Campus, Each Other

| August 20, 2007

It was dark Sunday night, Aug. 19, when Sweet Briar’s 222 new students formed a circle in the Quad and waited for the torch — more specifically an unlit glow stick — to be handed to them.

Surrounding the new students, and bearing the “torches,” were many members of the Sweet Briar community. Students, faculty and staff stood ready, waiting for a cue from Sweet Briar President Elisabeth Muhlenfeld.

“Since the beginning of time,” she said, “poets, prophets and philosophers have used light as a symbol of many things — of the soul, of the divine spirit, the spark of that which makes you human, of your intellect, of clarity and truth.

“Yesterday, you came here from all over the country and throughout the world, but you were not yet a member of this community. But this evening, you have begun to make this college your own.

“Notice that you are now, literally, standing in a circle, surrounded by many of the Sweet Briar community. You are now, literally, part of the inner circle.”

On her signal, the torches were passed and lit. A ring that looked like hundreds of fireflies illuminated the darkness and welcomed the students into what Muhlenfeld called a “vast sisterhood of bright, thoughtful and caring women.”

The ceremony was part of “Learning on the Land,” a program developed in 1997 by Sweet Briar’s outdoor programs office, better known as SWEBOP. In 1999, the Templeton Guide to College recognized the program as one that promotes character and development.

According to SWEBOP’s Web site, the goals of “Learning on the Land” are to “develop connections among classmates [and] develop a connection with the Sweet Briar campus and utilize the land as part of the learning experience.”

Led by Sweet Briar faculty and staff, this year’s offerings included everything from hiking and gardening to making bamboo flutes. Some groups also started projects that will continue throughout the semester.

Here’s what they were up to:

    • Campus safety officer Kerry Scott led his group on a hike to Laura’s Cove, a disused picnic area on the Sweet Briar campus. There, Scott and the students raked leaves, repaired stone barbeque pits, and rewarded themselves with roasted marshmallows and s’mores.
    • Across campus, assistant professor of biology Janet Steven and her students spent some time at the Sweet Briar Community Garden, which is tended by Sweet Briar faculty, staff and students.After a tour of the one-acre garden, students weeded plots, harvested veggies and sampled the fruits of their labor.
    • Rebecca McCord took her students on a musical journey, listening to film scores that relate to Sweet Briar’s beautiful landscape and rich history. The program included the music of African-American slaves, Native Americans and plantation owners.
    • One group, led by director of the first-year experience Tory Oelfke, saw Sweet Briar’s splendor through the lens of a camera. Oelfke and his students also talked about how exercise, activities and personal hobbies can be stress reducers.
    • “Individualism and Nature” was the topic for Kristen Ewing’s group. The associate director of career services took her team on a transcendental journey. Along the way, they learned about themselves and the land through the writings of great American writers. They also made bookmarks from items found in nature.
    • Michelle Badger, associate director of annual giving, led her group on a scavenger hunt that answered questions like, “How did Sweet Briar come into existence?” and “Why do our buildings have the names that they do?”They talked about gifts given to Sweet Briar and the importance of giving to causes that you’re passionate about. The group also came up with ideas for a future fundraising project.
    • For Linda Shank, vice president for communications and strategic initiatives, “Learning on the Land” was all about the green — green space, that is.The group visited Betsy’s Garden, the upper lake and the butterfly garden, and talked about the importance of green space in our daily lives. The students also made portable green spaces — a dish garden or terrarium — to keep.
    • Paula Kirkland, assistant director of admissions, took her students for a walk on the spooky side. They explored the ghost stories of Sweet Briar College, in particular those involving College founder Indiana Fletcher Williams and her daughter, Daisy.They visited Sweet Briar House and Monument Hill, where the Williams family is buried. The group also painted flower pots.
    • New students might wonder who lives in all the houses on campus, so Cheryl Steele, dean of co-curricular life, took her group on a walking tour of Faculty Row and other streets where staff and faculty live. After the tour, they gathered at Steele’s house on Elijah Road, which is called “Red Top.”
    • Debbie and Tim Kasper took students for a hike on Sweet Briar’s new nature trails, located off Boathouse Road. There, they learned about some of their other “roommates” on campus — plants and animals — and ways we are all connected.Debbie Kasper is an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology. Her husband, Tim, is the director of the Institute for Sustainability and heads the community garden.
    • Grounds superintendent Donna Meeks and groundskeeper Becky Snively showed their group some cool places to hide when you need to get away from it all, i.e. some of their favorite secluded spots on campus.They also went to the greenhouse, where students potted plants to take back to their dorm rooms.
    • The hills were alive with the sound of flutes. Mark Magruder took his group to one of his favorite places on campus — the bamboo forest. Students explored the area, and then made and decorated bamboo flutes. A quick musical lesson was provided, too.
    • Cheryl Warnock’s group went canoeing. The assistant professor of theatre arts took her students for a float on Sweet Briar’s beautiful lower lake, where birds, turtles, fish and other wildlife are in abundance.
    • Some of Joan Lucy’s students might have asked, “We’re going to do what?” as they embarked on a series of outdoor adventures aimed at boosting confidence, self-esteem, trust and team building.
    • Historical sites were on the itinerary when Lynn Rainville and her group set off for a two-hour walk, exploring the 19th-century Sweet Briar Plantation landscape. Sites included Sweet Briar House, an old cabin used by the enslaved community, the slave cemetery and Monument Hill.When it gets cooler in September, the group will reconvene to do maintenance at the slave cemetery. Rainville is an assistant professor of anthropology and archaeology.
    • Theatre was in the air when Loretta Wittman and her students explored a variety of outdoor theatrical settings while reading from famous plays and musicals, such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Laundry and Bourbon” and “The Sound of Music.” Wittman is an associate professor of theatre and dance.
    • Master Naturalist Mike Hayslett took students on a quest for some of the tiniest campus residents. Students honed their observation, contemplation and journaling skills as they searched out the hidden flora and fauna of Sweet Briar.
    • Sweet Briar has a lot of trees, some of which were seedlings before the American Revolution. Professor of biology Linda Fink and her group spent the evening in a nature sanctuary that protects some of these old trees. They used binoculars and field guides to identify trees and hunted for animals that use them as habitats. They also performed skits, creating stories about the trees.

— Suzanne Ramsey

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