Sweet Briar’s 107th Opening Convocation on Aug. 29 began with a list of cheerful announcements from President Jo Ellen Parker — eleven classroom renovations, an updated servery in Prothro, the library construction and three generous donations to the College would all create “just the right environment” for learning, Parker said.
After welcoming 202 first-years to the “sweet 16,” Parker left the podium to Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall, who presented professor Chris Witcombe with a new endowed professorship in art history. The endowment came from an anonymous donor in honor of Eleanor Barton and Aileen “Ninie” Laing, former art history professors at Sweet Briar.
Jessen-Marshall reflected on the meaning of value — the theme of this year’s honors and Y:1 programs. It is a topic she had thought about quite often during her first year at Sweet Briar, she said. But to really figure out what it was she valued, she had to escape the “beehive” busyness of the dean’s office and head down to the Boathouse and the Lower Lake.
Surrounded by nature and the laughter of students playing in the water, Jessen-Marshall realized “how important it is to sit and to be thoughtful for just a few moments.”
Value, she decided, is transient. “What we value, and why, changes as we age. It changes as we come to understand the world, and what we value differs for every single person,” she said.
Value, she added, was attached to things both tangible and intangible. While we often consider material things more valuable than those we can’t put a dollar amount on, education is an example of something that is valued in various ways.
“Every discipline challenges us to contemplate and test our ideas about value. Granted some of these are tangible values — biological energy costs, inflationary devaluation of currency — while others are intangible, the value of a Shakespearean sonnet, or an abstract Picasso to societies, and all of them transient.”
A liberal arts education, she added, invites students to figure out how all of the puzzle pieces connect, and to determine how valuable and meaningful these connections are.
“You each have the unique opportunity to spend four years dedicated to this pursuit, to challenge yourself to find the value in each experience you have here and to develop the habits of mind that will influence your understanding of the world when your life continues on from here.”
Jessen-Marshall urged students to take time to reflect, and resist getting lost in the busyness of day-to-day life.
“Go float in the lake … and talk about the value of philosophy. As the butterflies and dragonflies fly around you, think about the value of science and the questions you can ask,” she said. “Consider the connections between what might seem disparate at first, and realize the amazing opportunity you have.”
Additional perspectives on value came from this year’s faculty speaker, professor of mathematics Steve Wassell, and Class of 2013 Emilie Watts McVea Scholar, Katie Bitting.
Wassell was awarded the Cameron fellowship last year and was named among the nation’s top 300 professors by the Princeton Review. Basing his convocation address on this year’s Common Reading book, “The History of Money,” Wassell covered everything valuable — from science classes in Guion and mathematics in general to gold, natural resources and digital data. But the most valuable thing of all, he said, was time.
“Take the time to appreciate the here and now, which is forever becoming the there and then,” Wassell said. “Don’t spend too much time on your virtual life to the detriment of your real, physical life, here. For example, never text in class!”
While the latter wasn’t mentioned by Bitting, her insights on value summed up many of the thoughts shared by Jessen-Marshall and Wassell.
“The theme of value gives us a great opportunity to look at what is most important and meaningful to us and why that is,” she said.
“Money, time and energy all tend to be limited resources for college students. What we decide to do with these resources is a great indication of what we value in our lives and our education. College is the best time to discover what we enjoy, to find what interests us and what our passions are.”
President Parker concluded the ceremony with a reminder that it was just 50 years ago when Sweet Briar petitioned for integration. While great progress had been made since then in including women of all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, she cautioned that it would be a mistake to assume the work was done.
“In tribute to those who demanded integration for Sweet Briar in 1962, I charge those of us here in 2012 with welcoming, embracing and respecting all Sweet Briar women — those who are very much like ourselves, and those who are very different from ourselves,” Parker said.