Once a year, Sweet Briar bestows upon a senior its highest honor, the Presidential Medal. Alexandra St. Pierre accepted this year’s medal from President Jo Ellen Parker on Wednesday, March 21, during the Academic Recognition Dinner. The annual event also celebrates first-year honors and dean’s list students.
Speculation is typically rampant as the ritual ceremony approaches, but this year, perhaps more than others, folks seemed confident of the probable winner. Associate professor of biology John Morrissey, one of several faculty to recommend St. Pierre for the award, was sure.
“Well, technically, [I didn’t know] until last night when Jo Ellen said that the winner was a ‘classics major, with minors in biology and music,’ ” he said. “Alex is our only student with those credentials. But honestly, I knew she’d win at least a year ago; she’s that outstanding and exceptional.”
The Presidential Medal, a smaller replica of the one worn by the president on ceremonial occasions, is given for intellectual achievement in addition to distinction in a combination of community service, contribution to the arts, global awareness, fitness and athletic achievement, and leadership, civility and integrity.
Beyond excelling academically — she is an Honors Scholar and recipient of numerous awards — St. Pierre is the senior class president, musical director for the Sweet Tones a cappella group, and works as a writing and Latin tutor in the Academic Resource Center. She also has worked as a campus tour guide for the admissions office.
She is a four-year starter on the Vixen’s varsity field hockey team and captain for the past two years. She is president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, was named most valuable player last season, and received Sweet Briar’s Susan Lehman Courage Award in 2010. She has appeared on the Old Dominion Athletic Conference academic team all four years and was named to the all-conference second team in 2010 and 2011.
A mezzo-soprano who sings opera and cabaret, she has played leading roles in several musical productions. In her community, she volunteers for the Merrimac River Feline Rescue Society, the Masconomet Healthcare Center and Special Olympics Virginia.
And any one of her faculty mentors will say she does it all well.
“I think it is safe to say that I have never known a student who so effortlessly sails to the top of every endeavor she tries,” says her classics advisor, Eric Casey. “Alex doesn’t just participate in activities but quickly becomes a leader as we can see in her being a team captain, class president and star of several musical productions.”
Nonetheless, St. Pierre is so intensely goal-driven that people sometimes worry her days are a joyless grind from one achievement to the next. They shouldn’t fret, she says. As a high school senior making an occasional entry into the journal she keeps, she recorded one goal for college, to be happy at the end of four years.
“That’s where I think I’ve succeeded, looking back on it,” St. Pierre says. “And I’m thrilled because I thought I’d be exhausted and worn out. I’m not. I’m in a good place.”
That may be because she long ago figured out how to balance what’s important to her. As Morrissey, her pre-vet advisor, points out, “Alex’s achievement is more atypical because she followed her heart and interests, not the standard path” to her goal of attending veterinary school.
She majored in classics, concentrating in classical languages, out of sheer intellectual curiosity and the knowledge that she would probably never be able to indulge in their formal study again. The one concession to her ultimate prize — admittance to the equine medicine program at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school — is her biology minor. And music? Well, she loves singing and wanted to excel at it through a fuller understanding of the theory and practice of the discipline.
Attending a liberal arts school with strong programs in the sciences gave her the freedom to follow her heart. “If you have the capacity and the desire to pursue something, the philosophy at Sweet Briar is such that you should have the opportunity to do so,” she says.
St. Pierre reasoned her classics major would set her apart in her quest for vet school, and likely she was right. From among thousands of applicants, she landed one of the 125 slots at the school of her choice, and further, in the program she wanted. She plans to specialize in equine sports and podiatry — an area near to her heart as both an athlete who knows pain first-hand and a lifelong competitive rider.
“I didn’t just want to go to vet school, I wanted to go to Penn, so I worked toward that goal from my first year,” she says.
There is one caveat. She is requesting a one-year deferral to allow her to compete on the three-day eventing training circuit with her horse, Aidan. It’s something she has longed to do for years. Aidan, a big red grandson of Secretariat whom she describes as a “sweet goofball,” will reach retirement age by fall 2013. Perfect timing, to St. Pierre’s thinking.
Meanwhile, the midfielder still has her eye on the ball: She has an offer to work for a farrier during the upcoming year. “I think it would be great experience going into vet school,” she says.
If Casey, St. Pierre’s classics professor, is sad his discipline is losing a bright light by her choice of careers, he isn’t saying. Rather, he appreciates Penn’s selection of her.
“Clearly the best graduate schools in the country still value an education that engages students broadly and across many disciplines.”
As for the void St. Pierre will leave when she graduates?
“The question is really ‘what won’t we miss about Alex?’ as she is exceptional in so many regards,” he says. “We will certainly miss her insightful and learned contributions to class discussions, her incredibly positive and optimistic disposition, and finally we will miss hearing her beautiful singing voice in any number of venues.”
Contact: Jennifer McManamay