A chilly breeze welcomed Sweet Briar’s 123 undergraduate and seven master’s candidates as they marched into the quad on Saturday, May 17, led by the Albemarle Pipes and Drums Band. Against a gorgeous blue sky, mighty winds roared through the microphone as speakers took turns congratulating the Class of 2014. It was the College’s 105th commencement, and President Jo Ellen Parker’s last as president.
In a spirited charge to her classmates, senior class president Ilisa Weinberg offered a humorous take on Snapchat, the photo messaging application that auto-deletes so-called “snaps” after 10 seconds.
“If you aren’t [familiar with it], that’s OK; you’re probably a lot more productive than the rest of us,” she said, drawing many chuckles from the crowd. “The more work we get from our professors, the more snaps we send across campus … As an economics major, I would posit that the two are positively correlated.”
In many ways, Weinberg added, their time at Sweet Briar had been like a series of snaps — from being “the last class to have boathouse parties at the actual boathouse and the last class to experience in-house dining,” to “multiple snow days, and many morning prayers that weren’t answered for snow days,” as well as “unforgettable chocolate-covered bacon” at Junior Banquet.
“All of these memories can be pieced together into one single, lasting memory that we will always treasure,” she said. “This is where we made friends that we will keep for the rest of our lives; this is where we grew as a class and, more than anything, this is where we have grown as individuals. This is where we have laughed and cried, where we have gained confidence and, of course, this is where we have attained an outstanding education.”
None of it, she added, would have been possible without the support of their families, friends and professors.
“Over the course of this historic day, please give yourself more than 10 seconds to truly experience the moment,” Weinberg said. “Take multiple pictures and mental snapshots to help you remember this absolutely incredible accomplishment. You deserve it. Who knows, maybe you’ll finally nail down your perfect selfie.”
President Parker had one crucial memory to add to the Class of 2014’s list of snaps: “You are now also the only class to have experienced the elusive mutant logigator,” she said, alluding to the news that an alligator — which was later debunked as a log — had been spotted in the Upper Lake two days before.
After leaving the podium to 2014 Presidential Medalist Spencer Beall, who, in reference to a quote by Julia Child, challenged her classmates to stay “tremendously interested” in whatever passion they discovered, President Parker introduced commencement speaker Dr. Virginia “Ginger” Upchurch Collier.
Collier, who graduated from Sweet Briar summa cum laude with highest honors in chemistry in 1972, is the Hugh R. Sharp, Jr. Chair of Medicine at Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, Del. In 1990, Sweet Briar honored her with the Distinguished Alumna Award. Collier also was elected to the College’s board of directors and served as chair from 2005 to 2011.
It was Collier who hired President Parker in 2009, an event both women remember fondly.
“As you know, being president of a college is really a 24/7-job, and she has been a 24/7-president,” Collier said. Turning to President Parker, she added: “Thank you, and we also look forward to your Annual Fund gift.”
Collier opened her speech with a pop quiz, asking the audience if they knew what Christine Lagarde, Robert Birgeneau, Ayman Ali and Condoleeza Rice had in common.
Yes, she said, all four withdrew as 2014 commencement speakers after protests.
“So, I’d like to say thanks to all of you for ‘sticking with me’!”
In her address, Collier focused on the theme of “Stories” — from recounting her own journey through Sweet Briar and beyond, to sharing the story of her friendship with the late Lee Piepho and his wife Susan, to shining a spotlight on the stories that would yet be written by the Class of 2014.
“An important part of my story began at Sweet Briar,” she said. “For four years, I learned more than I thought possible.”
And, just like today, not all learning took place in the classroom. Collier recalled vigorous student protests during the Vietnam War, which created an atmosphere so tense that classes and exams were canceled at the end of her sophomore year.
“The faculty helped us understand these troubling situations from different points of view,” she said. “We learned that disruption and change can ultimately result in positive outcomes.”
It was a theme that would continue to follow her through her Sweet Briar years and her career. From getting a D-minus on her first English paper to losing four elections before making the presidential search committee, from failing to make the varsity basketball team at 5 feet, 3 inches tall to being unsuccessful in her first tryout for the Sweet Tones, Collier’s path was marked by many big and small obstacles.
But she discovered that failure was an opportunity to learn. When Johns Hopkins University wait-listed her, Collier waited. Two days before classes began, the medical school gave her a call.
“It never occurred to me that I might not succeed,” she said. “You see, I had the self-confidence gained from my undergraduate years and the full support of the Sweet Briar faculty who knew me well.”
Being one of just 20 women in a class of 120 medical students didn’t faze Collier, who was chosen as the outstanding clinician of her graduating class four years later. Despite many compromises she made to accommodate her growing family, Collier was able to build an impressive career in academic medicine, culminating in her current position as chair of medicine at Christiana Care.
“I realize that an individual story such as mine or yours is not written in a day, a week or a month, but rather over many years,” Collier said. “I never could have predicted my story when I was in your seat. From private practice in a rural community to my role in academic medicine, from motherhood to leadership in one of the largest health care systems in the nation, those twists and turns and my commitment to my family have guided me to opportunities and new adventures I never expected.”
Rather than having a specific goal, she added, it had served her well to focus on aspirational goals.
“My true north has always been the pursuit of excellence,” she said. “By giving one hundred percent effort to the tasks at hand, with a bit of luck, I’ve been able to take full advantage of opportunities as they arise.”
After reflecting on the strength she gained from lifelong friendships that were forged at Sweet Briar, Collier turned toward the present.
The next 50 years, she said, held “great promise” for women in the U.S., with leadership opportunities growing in every sector of the economy.
“Now is the time to define your future for yourself, rather than having others define it for you,” she said. “As you begin to write your story — even if you’re unsure where you want to go — commit to excellence in all that you do. This will always move you closer to your dreams.”
After presenting 130 diplomas, as well as several anticipated degrees, Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall announced the All-College Awards.
Grace Caskey ’14 and Brittany Griffith ’14 received the Penelope Czarra Award for combining “scholastic achievement, student leadership and effective contributions to the improvement of the quality of student life at Sweet Briar”; Kaitlin Amanda Schaal ’14 was honored with the Connie M. Guion Award for “excellence as a human being and as a member of the College”; Emma Marie Merritt-Cuneo ’14 and Allissa Abdelwahed ’14 received the Walker Family Award, which honors seniors with “high scholastic standing, a cheerful, positive disposition, and who show warmth, generosity and humility”; and Olivia Trees Smith ’14 was awarded the Judith Molinar Elkins Prize for outstanding achievements in the mathematical, physical, environmental or biological sciences.
The much-anticipated title of Emily Watts McVea Scholar for the highest ranking class member went to Chelsea Catherine Kane ’14, who also received the Alpha Lambda Delta Award.
In her charge to the Class of 2014, President Parker had only one thing to add to Collier’s address:
“Make sure that the lives of others are also better and freer because of the education you’ve received,” she said. “Use your work and influence to uphold the freedoms of others — especially those with whom you disagree. Use your talents and skills, your professional and civic activities, to free others from the constraints imposed by want and fear. Let your work, and your example, demonstrate the liberating power of education, not only for individuals, but also for families, communities and nations.”
A previous version of this story inadvertently listed the recipient of the Penelope Czarra Award as Grace Griffin ’14. We regret the error.