Dean Jessen-Marshall’s Full Convocation Remarks

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to our opening convocation for academic year 2013. Each year, as I’m faced with the date of our opening convocation on my calendar, I find myself tormented by the challenge of figuring out what words I should say to all of you, what intriguing collection of phrases I can offer up, what contemplative metaphor I can find that will both excite and inspire you to embark on the journey of a new school year at Sweet Briar. And each year I drive my family crazy.

Two years ago, it was earthquakes and the shaking of higher education. Last year, it was swallowtail butterflies and the contemplation of the value of a liberal arts education. This year, well, this year, I find myself preoccupied with the question of what it means to educate women. Specifically, what it means to educate women in the 21st century here at Sweet Briar College.

It’s a conversation I’ve been having recently with the faculty. Just this past week, I asked the faculty to join me for a full-day retreat to think about the future of our curriculum. To what end do we teach? 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 that make her uniquely qualified to go out in the world? 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, and are we as intentional as we can be about this experience both inside and outside of the classroom?

At the end of our day together, the faculty unanimously agreed that conversations about our curriculum need to hold these questions central and that as we embark on discussions intended to transform our curriculum, we must consider how we put our mission as a women’s college at the center of it.

Interestingly, I realized I’ve been having these conversations across campus in a variety of ways. Dean Cheryl Steele and I have been working with a group of faculty and staff over the summer to think about the programs we need, the support structures we provide, the connections that need to intentionally cross both the curriculum and the co-curriculum that will lead to student success. We’ve been trying to define what a Center for Student Success might look like at Sweet Briar, and as we let our ideas develop and run, what we came back to was that our audience is uniquely women and we must ask ourselves what that means.

We talk about how our environment allows women to find their voices, develop their confidence, practice leadership, grow, explore,  succeed. And as I’ve talked with my colleagues, we’ve joked that what we want is to develop young women who have grit. I like this idea, even if I have to admit, it is difficult to write a vision statement for a curriculum that eloquently finds a way to articulate grit.

But it’s important, and I’m trying to figure out how to capture what we mean by this. 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 the strength of character that knows how to be tenacious in the face of adversity, knows how to stand strong and not give up when faced with a challenge.

When I talk about the fact that we set the academic bar high here at Sweet Briar, I’m starting to think about this in a new way. All of the support systems we put in place to help you be successful? Those are important, because we expect that if we are really challenging you, you might actually fail. But you learn a lot by being tested to your limits. I’m not talking about failing because you spent too much time puffy painting and never opened your text books. I’m talking about failing because you were challenged to the limit of your skills and knowledge, and in order not to fail, you had to rise up and find the strength to say, “No way! This isn’t going to happen to me!” You find resources, and you ask for help. You learn a new skill, a new way of looking at a problem, a new source for information, a new form of persuasion or exposition, and you pass. And you not only pass, but you excel. That is grit. And it’s what I want for each of you.

And then I made up an acronym because that is what we do in higher education. This is just my first attempt. I have no doubt many of you will find better words for this, and I encourage you to share them with me.

G — The first word that came to mind was grace. I like the word grace. I think it reflects something that is often considered uniquely feminine, and I’m willing to own the femininity side of being at a women’s college. I mean, come on, our colors are pink and green and our mascot is a vixen. But I also like the word gravitas. Gravity, strength, fortitude. Gravitas.

R — There are lots of good R words. Resourceful, resilient, relentless. Equally important is respectful.

I — Intellectual seems obvious, but equally valuable is to be intentional and the importance of integrity.

T— Finally T. T offers us words like thoughtful and even better it offers us tenacious—oh, if you can be anything, be tenacious!

So this is my challenge to each of you: Find this within yourself. Be here at Sweet Briar because you have expectations about how this college, this community of teachers and learners, this gritty, tenacious, resilient group can help you succeed.

I want to be clear: This is not about bulldozing, and it’s not about bullying. I’m not saying be tenacious and relentless at the expense of others; it’s absolutely not about behavior that alienates and hurts others. It’s about collectively harnessing the power of all of these minds, these ideas, these problems and being part of the solution and strong in your resolve.

Today is an important anniversary. It marks the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in Washington, D.C. He was a man who was tenacious. He knew adversity, but he did not step down when faced with a challenge. He dared to call a community together in light of a greater good. As a result, his speech with the famous line “I have a dream” continues to resonate even today.

I’ll close today with a reminder for the new students and a message for everyone. When we put together the themes for our new student orientation this year, we intentionally choose language to challenge and to inspire. Those words were:

I care.
I create.
I believe.
I succeed.
I dream.

This is a place where these words can truly be meaningful, where they can be manifested and made tangible. I challenge each of you to take them to heart and aspire to find your grit!

Welcome once again to a new academic year!