Sweet Briar’s 113th academic year begins with unusual charge: Be courageous, not perfect

Meredith Woo-convocation
President Meredith Woo speaks at Sweet Briar College’s 113th Opening Convocation.

Babcock Fine Arts Center buzzed with excitement as students, faculty and staff filed into Murchison Lane Auditorium on Wednesday, Aug. 22, to celebrate Sweet Briar College’s 113th Opening Convocation.

Perhaps a new Sweet Briar tradition accounted for some of that excitement: As every year in recent history, there was a lot of change ahead. President Meredith Woo introduced an array of new faculty and staff, among them Vice President for Finance and Administration Lori Husein and Athletics Director Jodi Canfield. Keynote speaker, Dean Lynn Rainville, pointed to the new academic calendar, “re-envisioned majors that integrate thinking and doing” and a brand-new leadership core in place of the antiquated general education requirements.

But first, Student Government Association president Caroline Thomas ’19 challenged her peers to become their “own definition of fierce” and to embrace Sweet Briar’s culture — such as saying “yes” to joining a new club. Her charge to the student body, she said, had two parts, and part one applied to everyone — staff and faculty included: “What do you want your legacy to be?” After all, she added — referencing the Broadway musical “Hamilton” — “every action can lead to change.”

Caroline Thomas
Caroline Thomas ’19 challenged peers to take charge of their stories.

The second part of her charge brought back tearful, albeit happy memories. “My freshman year, Dean [Marcia] Thom-Kaley stood right where I am standing today and called me onto the stage — which scared the living heck out of me! — and she gave me the title ‘Keeper of the Sweet Briar Story,’” Thomas recalled, fighting back tears. “But I believe there can’t be just one. I charge each and every one of you to be the keeper of the Sweet Briar story. The only requirement is that you remember that you are in charge of your own destiny, so take hold of your life, create and remember your story, and leave your own unique and fierce legacy.”

Rousing applause and standing ovations followed as Woo stood up to introduce new faculty and staff. “It’s gonna be a great year,” she concluded, offering a big smile.

Crowd in Murchison Lane
Thomas’s speech earned standing ovations — first from her classmates, then everyone else.

Rainville, who has been at Sweet Briar since 2001, noted that even those who had been at the College even longer and experienced many traditions would all join students in some new traditions this year as Sweet Briar premieres its innovative academic calendar (three weeks, 12 weeks, 12 weeks, three weeks) and redesigned classes. Rainville especially noted the new leadership core, with the second word serving as a meaningful acronym — to faculty, at least.

“If my microphone goes dead in a moment, it’s my VP for communications cutting me off because she doesn’t like acronyms,” Rainville joked. Starting backwards, she went on to decipher the word CORE: “Engaged learning, responsible citizens — it says ‘useful members of society’ in Indiana Fletcher Williams’s will, but there’s no U in ‘core’ — and open-mined exploration of new fields and concepts. And then the one that motivates me on a daily basis: curiosity.”

A trained Near Eastern archaeologist and anthropologist, she was filled with questions when she first came to Sweet Briar 17 years ago, Rainville said. “There was the hitching post — yet no horses nearby,” she explained, prompting chuckles from the crowd. “There’s this old-fashioned farmhouse with Italianate towers — mysterious!”

Lynn Rainville
Dean Lynn Rainville highlighted the new curriculum and invited students to find their place at Sweet Briar.

And yet, there was no guidebook for her research, she added, acknowledging that some students in the room today might find themselves in the same boat. It was now up to them to decide how they wanted to spend their four years at Sweet Briar, she said. Which classes would they take, and when? “And how do you maintain a healthy diet when there are homemade doughnuts every. single. Thursday?” she added, garnering more laughs.

In addition to finding their fierce, Rainville encouraged students to find their place — after all, nature is everywhere, she added, offering opportunities for research but also hills “well-suited for sledding.”

To encourage exploration, Rainville ended her address with a scavenger hunt for her three favorite places on campus. First, she wanted students to find the tree-shaded patio that houses Daisy Williams’s original headstone. Williams, she noted, was fluent in several languages, achieved good grades in every subject she attempted and was an accomplished horseback rider — all in 16 short years of life. “The excellence present in this room started with her,” Rainville said. Next, she wanted students to find a building named after a certain Mary Helen. The third location, she added, was a sacred one: a cemetery for enslaved people.

“You will find me at each of these sites, as well as dozens more, as I continue to explore this historic and unique campus,” Rainville said. “Wherever you find your place, please know that all of us on the staff and faculty are here to welcome you and guide you on your journey.”

Ice cream social
Ice cream and popsicles greeted students, faculty and staff outside of Babcock.

Woo’s charge for the new academic year had been inspired, she said, by a TED talk sent to her via text message from Husein around the time she was hired. Initial hesitation (“I need to watch another TED talk like I need a hole in my head,” Woo thought.) made way for the realization that there was a lot of truth in this talk. Its core message: “Girls are taught to be perfect, but they are not always taught to be courageous.”

It’s true, Woo agreed, that girls are often taught to be perfect — “to look perfect, to have the perfect weight, be perfect in our scholarly accomplishments and in the way we relate to others.” There was nothing wrong with any of these things per se, she added, except that being perfect almost always meant: being perfect in the eyes of someone else. “If we care about that, we let others control our lives,” she said. “We become their captives.”

“It’s also true,” she added, “that we are rarely taught to be courageous.” People who are courageous, she added, were dangerous — especially if they are women because women, she said, are expected to be docile. Being courageous, Woo added, means acting on the strength of our convictions. It’s not necessary — or important — to be perfect, she said. “You’ll learn that in your Design Thinking class. Perfection has nothing to do with nothing.”

It’s all about failing, she added: “We learn success through failure. At the end, maybe you come up with something you can be proud of. That’s what learning is all about.”

Outside the auditorium, a photo booth greeted students, faculty and staff as they made their way to the sunshine-filled patio, where a long line formed in anticipation of locally made ice cream.