What Ceiling? Sweet Briar Women In Force in D.C.

| June 4, 2012

Sweet Briar women across the country know what it means to be part of the Sweet Briar network. Ask any alumna, from Palmetto, Fla., to Battle Ground, Wash., and she’ll tell you that Sweet Briar College is more than just a community. It’s family. Yet, few places are as strong in numbers and as tightly knit as Washington, D.C. Just three hours north of campus, the nation’s capital boasts a staggering 951 alumnae.

This spring, we traveled to the heart of D.C. to talk to some of these accomplished Sweet Briar women about their remarkable careers, and about the unique ties that connect each and every one of them. We spoke with lawmakers, women’s rights activists, journalists, CEO’s, scientists and national security advisors.

For some, life has been full of surprises, with career paths unfolding into uncharted territories. Others never waivered from long-held dreams. Their jobs, politics and backgrounds are as diverse as their liberal arts education. Yet all of them are making a difference in the world, whether they’re shaping policy, teaching the next generation, defending the country or improving their own neighborhoods. And they all say it started right here, at Sweet Briar.

But what, we asked in a series of questions, is so special about Sweet Briar? Many cited “the network,” the connection that helped them get started in their careers or that they can rely on for support. They talked about professors who enlightened and classmates who inspired. And they spoke of the all-important all-women advantage.

“Those four years at Sweet Briar were the most empowering of my life,” says Susan Scanlan ’69, one of the most influential alumnae we spoke to. Susan is chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations and president of the Women’s Research & Education Institute.

“Sweet Briar gave me breathing room to build lifelong friendships, to establish priorities and to grow in grace and grit.”

Almost 30 years later, Yolanda Lynn Davis Saunders ’96 felt it too, although her science career took a far different track in government service. Today she is one of numerous alumnae who support the Department of Homeland Security.

“I am one of only a few women to work in the area of chemical/biological defense and it is quite obvious when I travel abroad or attend meetings,” Yolanda says. “Very few people look like me in this career field, and I’m perfectly fine with that because Sweet Briar has taught me to be comfortable in my own skin and to excel wherever I go.”

Here, in their own words, are selected quotes from D.C. alumnae about what they are doing and how they got there.

Debra Elkins, Ph.D. ’93: Section Chief (Risk Assessments and Analysis), Office of Risk Management and Analysis, Department of Homeland Security
“If I’m not working on $10 billion problems every day, we’re not tackling big enough problems in homeland security.”

Angela Grisby Roberts ’03: Policy Analyst, Advanced Resources Technologies
“I change the world each and every day by actively engaging in my community, adapting to the ever-present social and economic changes and transforming the world by my active participation. These are the core values that Sweet Briar taught me; to be a leader of tomorrow.”

Kristin Chapdelaine ’08: Account Supervisor, Edelman Public Relations
“It is reassuring to know that you will be a part of the SBC community for life.”

Susan Scanlan ’69: Chair, National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO); President, Women’s Research and Education Institute (WREI)
“Skills I honed at Sweet Briar that I didn’t realize would be important — presenting myself with confidence, being comfortable with public speaking, learning to be inclusive, writing thank-you letters, following up on every opportunity that presents itself, taking a risk — turned out to be key in distinguishing myself from the competition for jobs or honors or choice assignments.”

Samira Hossain ’05: Senior Accounting Assistant, International Monetary Fund (IMF)
“In the waiting room [in the place of my first job] I met three other applicants, all male from Ivy League schools, and I was the only one with a liberal arts background. … My liberal arts education made me feel I could apply what I learned to any job. … The small school environment and small classes helped me become a better team player, something significant in any job.”

Jesse K. Martin ’02: Associate, Troutman Sanders LLP
“Sweet Briar provided countless opportunities. I completed two majors, participated in two varsity sports, studied in Seville, Spain, for a semester and participated in [the] Washington Semester at American University in the District. [Now,] I look out for the health and welfare of other women in all aspects of my life. My hope is to generate opportunities so that they are positioned to fulfill their potential if they choose to embrace it.”

Lauren Byrne ’04: Associate Research Analyst, CNA
“Going to a women’s college allowed me to form lifelong friendships with incredibly strong, intelligent and lovely women. In a male-dominated industry, the strength of character and education I received serves me well every day.

Yolanda Lynn Davis Saunders ’96: Advisory Scientist, Strategic Analysis Inc.
“Attending a women’s college gave me the opportunity to learn who I was as a person, including how important it is for women to be in leadership positions and assert their authority in order to break through the glass ceiling, specifically in the areas of science and government. Very few people look like me in this career field, and I’m perfectly fine with that because Sweet Briar has taught me to be comfortable in my own skin and to excel wherever I go.”

Phoebe Brunner Peacock ’68: Classics Specialist, Library of Congress (retired in 2011)
“I know that I can always find a contact through Sweet Briar for virtually any need. The network is broad in scope, geographically and professionally.”

Michela English ’71: President and CEO, Fight For Children
“I attended Sweet Briar in a period of turmoil (amid protests against the Vietnam War, civil rights, integration of Southern schools, etc.) and left filled with social reform zeal — wanting to make the world a better place. Being at a small, supportive women’s college like Sweet Briar really allowed me to develop leadership skills and build my self-confidence.”

Jane Hutcherson Frierson ’74: Lead Information Systems Engineer, The MITRE Corporation
“I received an excellent education, which has sustained my living around the world and being able to work in really interesting, challenging jobs. My Sweet Briar education gave me a great ability to think and assess situations and people. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without my Sweet Briar friends. My life has been much richer because of those friendships formed in the dorms, in the riding ring, on the tennis court and in the art studio labs many years ago. These friendships have endured a lifetime.”

Ariana Kateryna Wolynec-Werner, Esq. ’01: Senior Policy Officer
“Sweet Briar formed the foundation of my entire adult life. I had my first opportunities to lead at Sweet Briar, which has allowed me to advance quickly into career leadership positions. My first office had four women and over thirty men. Needless to say, my Sweet Briar leadership skills came in handy and the thought of becoming a wallflower in an unbalanced office never even occurred to me.”

Jee Park Pae ’02: Chief Development Officer, Urban Alliance
“Our ability to change the world comes from where we started — our education and experience at Sweet Briar is life-changing, so in turn, when we have this unique experience to constantly challenge ourselves, our worldview changes. To me, success in the professional sense is when we are good stewards of our gifts, and we cultivate our gifts to ensure that our communities are flourishing. I know that in my circles of Sweet Briar friends, each person is working towards that goal.”

Alison Stockdale ’00: Drug Program Manager, Department of the Interior
“Now that I am twelve years out of college, nothing Sweet Briar women do surprises me anymore. … My reaction now when I read or hear something amazing from an alumna is, ‘Yup, that sounds about right.’”

Carolyn Leddy ’98: National Security Advisor to U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican whip
“I treasure, and carry with me each day, the close relationships and the ‘dare to be different’ mentality that I nurtured at Sweet Briar. It definitely nurtured my fierce independence and confidence to speak my mind.”


Category: Summer 2012