On May 8, 2021, Sweet Briar College held its 112th Commencement for the Class of 2021 — one of the first in-person college graduation ceremonies to be held in the U.S. since the pandemic began over a year ago. While the traditional events looked slightly different than usual, with social distancing in place and a condensed schedule, it was a glorious spring day full of excitement and gratitude for being able to celebrate together. The Awards Ceremony and Commencement also were livestreamed, in what has become a common occurrence of blending in-person attendance and virtual access.
Prior to Saturday’s events, the Class of 2021 enjoyed a week full of events (they certainly had become experts at planning safe and fun activities with the help of the COVID Captains). And, in true Sweet Briar woman fashion — just like they’ve learned to adapt to and overcome a year and a half of pandemic challenges — they persevered through a brief but ferocious storm that took out the power on campus for several days prior to Commencement. Resilience has truly become a key word to describe this class. Or, as Commencement speaker Dr. Jewel Bronaugh said when comparing them to the story of Ester in the Bible: They are brave, smart, graceful and intelligent.
Before Saturday’s main event, Baccalaureate was held on Thursday, a day later than planned due to less than ideal weather. Baccalaureate is a touching, inspiring and uplifting ceremony where members of the Class of 2021 shared readings and reflections. Philosophy professor Chris Penfield delivered the address. At the end of the ceremony, each class member was presented with a rose by Dean of the College Teresa Garrett and Dean of Student Life Kerry Greenstein.
Professor Penfield, like President Woo, arrived at Sweet Briar in the fall of 2017, along with the Class of 2021. This certainly formed a special bond right from the beginning. “A year later, many of us experienced the same crash course in design thinking alongside each other,” he reflected in the opening of his Baccalaureate address. “But more generally, we have born witness together to considerable change and growth over the last four years. I thought about reflecting upon the nature of change itself for my topic today. It is no doubt a timeless theme: the constancy of change, the permanence of impermanence. And the idea, the fact, of transformation certainly forms a backdrop for our present reflection.”
“You have…had the challenging fortune to be at the vanguard of an experimental odyssey: the last class recruited during a different era, the first class to steer fully through the new one,” continued Professor Penfield. “You have been the initiates on a journey of institutional self-discovery and reinvention…. Moreover, during our time here, the world at large has undergone dramatic tumult of a kind and magnitude unseen for generations.”
However, he felt that the theme of change seemed to be too general and somewhat repetitive for this graduating class. In the spirit of what a Baccalaureate traditionally represents, “the two themes that presented themselves to me were courage and affirmation, for both of these qualities are fundamental prerequisites for the very existence of this ceremony,” he stated, then expounded upon their meaning through a reflection on the refrain, “your being here today.”
“You have shown tremendous heart over the last four years; you have been the animating source of the lifeblood, the life-force, coursing through the body politic of this College,” Professor Penfield said to the class. “I believe the legacy you leave here will be that of affirmation, and the courage you have shown in so affirming. Long after this moment here today has receded from our minds…and all that has led up to it, will remain foundational to the very existence, the mystic memory, and the destiny of the College.”
After reflecting on these past four years during Baccalaureate, the stage was set to recognize the outstanding achievements of individual members of the class.
Saturday’s events started with a special induction ceremony of six members of the Class of 2021 into the national honor society Phi Beta Kappa, held in the Reahard Gallery of the Mary Helen Cochran Library. Sweet Briar is among less than 10% of U.S. colleges and universities with a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on campus.
This year’s inductees are Theresa Carriveau, Abigail De Leon, Margaret Heath, Emma Hines, Mary Lizzie Hodges and Samantha Runyon.
The next event of the day was the presentation of program certificates and academic and College awards, presided over by Dean Teresa Garrett. Participants in the Arts Management and Equine Studies programs received their certificates, followed by the presentation of the College’s numerous individual and perpetual awards. Members of the Dean’s Lists and multiple honor societies also were recognized.
The award recipients are:
- The Alpha Lambda Delta Award: Emma Hossley Hines
- The Award For Excellence In Studio Art: Lillian Peterson
- The Crysler Award: Kate Balding
- The Penelope Lane Czarra Award: Samantha Runyon
- The Juliet Halliburton Davis Environmental Science Award: Abigail Cahill and Kayla Hobbs
- The Delta Kappa Gamma Society International Outstanding Scholar Education Award: Julie Horton
- The Economics Department Outstanding Senior Award: Rania AlJak
- The Judith Molinar Elkins Prize: Rosemary Austin
- The Excellence In Engineering Award: Angelika Lindberg
- The Engineering Outreach Award: Rachel Logan
- The Connie M. Guion Award: Madeleine McAllister
- The Magruder Excellence In Dance Award: Tamia Jackson
- The Mathematical Sciences Award: Rania AlJak and Sydney Campbell
- The Emily Watts McVea Scholar: Rania AlJak
- The Poetry Prize: Mary Hodges
- The Jessica Steinbrenner Molloy Award in Theatre Arts: Mary Parker
- The Presidential Medalist: Sydney Campbell
- The Shakespeare Prize: Lauren Phillips
- The Sprague-Belcher Award in Biology: Hannah Inman
- The Anne Gary Pannell Taylor Award in History: Caroline Potts
- The Anne Gary Pannell Taylor Graduate Fellowship in History: Natalie Carroll
- The Walker Family Award: Nora Florio
After an outdoor lunch, everyone prepared for the main event, Commencement. The Class of 2021 gathered in the arcade at Benedict Hall and made their way to the stairs for the traditional class photo (plus numerous photos with each other and legacy family members). As they lined up along Quad Road, the sounds of the Albemarle Pipes and Drums Band filled the air, and the formal procession began to the heart of campus.
Following an invocation by Rev. Dr. Makanah Morriss ’66, President Meredith Woo welcomed and thanked every member of the Sweet Briar family. “We celebrate the successes of this graduating class of tenacious and strong-willed women,” said President Woo. “We celebrate their families for their faith in them and in the College they have called home. We celebrate the faculty and staff of Sweet Briar for their hard work and perseverance, and above all, for their commitment to our students. We celebrate the alumnae of the College who have made history, and the board of directors for so ably guiding the College to the future.”
Next to the podium was Presidential Medalist Sydney Campbell. “During the past four years, the Class of 2021 has weathered many challenges and embraced many changes: The transformation of the curriculum, transitions in faculty and staff, an untamed growth in both the natural beauty of the campus and the exceptional people that inhabit it,” shared Sydney. “I learned how to make long-lasting friendships; how to provide empathy, but I also know when to draw the line.” As she reached the end of her remarks, her personality and sense of humor bubbled to the surface, “All in all, I have to say that my time at Sweet Briar has been quite reasonable.”
Following Sydney at the podium was class president Samantha Runyon. “Before the semester began, I charged the senior class with setting an example for the younger classes in this difficult year. The Class of 2021 has navigated this year with grace and dignity, and persevered through so many changes in our short time here, and I have never been prouder to call myself a Sweet Briar woman.” She remarked on her class’s flexibility and dedication to the College, and she congratulated them on their exciting plans, whether they include graduate school or the start of careers.
After these personal messages from the class, President Woo introduced the special Commencement speaker, Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and President Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Once confirmed, Dr. Bronaugh will be the first Black woman and woman of color to serve as USDA deputy secretary.
“The story of Esther illustrates how anyone, especially a woman, has been created for greatness — no matter your background or where you come from, who raised you or your life experiences or tragedies,” she shared. “It also illustrates how we as women can fight our fears and bring glory to an entire generation of people. The story of Esther is about strength, leadership, bravery and greatness.”
Here are Dr. Bronaugh’s six lessons for the Class of 2021:
- Get ready…because you are here for such a time as this.
- Sometimes, the greatest things emerge during the most dismal circumstances.
- Intelligence and influence are often demonstrated with few words and a sense of humbleness. You don’t have to tell people how great you are. The greatest influencers speak quietly and simply.
- Be a beacon of light…no matter where you are or who you are around. Find out what makes you unique, what makes you shine bright! Step into that light…and own it!
- Don’t ever be afraid to have tough conversations.
- Sometimes you might seem like the most unlikely person to be at the head of the table, but you are the exact person needed for that position in that moment. If you ever find yourself in that position, be yourself!
“Today,” she concluded, “I challenge you to be an Esther…bold and courageous enough to stand for the truth, to voice your opinion and fight for the good of others, even when it means to sacrifice yourself. If you have been put in a position, it is for a purpose. Never be afraid to heed that inner voice…for who knows as you have been born for such a time as this!”
Following Dr. Bronaugh’s moving address, Georgene Vairo, chair of the board of directors, called out the class’s “spunk and courage” by sharing how “Your choice to attend Sweet Briar vindicated the effort of hundreds of our alumnae who mobilized to ensure that Sweet Briar would thrive into perpetuity.” She congratulated all on their academic and athletic achievements and impressive future plans.
Georgene also mentioned the noteworthy point that this class “provided the foundation that resulted in Sweet Briar being named in U.S. News and World Report twice during your collegiate career as one of the most innovative colleges in the country. You were indomitable, and now are prepared to be indomitable throughout your life, as it inevitably continues to throw curveballs at you.”
Next, Sarah Clement ’77, chairwoman of the Saving Sweet Briar Board of Directors and one of three co-chairs of the Alumnae Alliance, welcomed the newest members of the alumnae sisterhood. “As you leave your student days behind, you are not leaving Sweet Briar behind. Your memories, your incomparable liberal arts education and all the friends and classmates you have spent so much time with will stay with you and will help you rise to every occasion that presents itself over the years to come.”
Before President Woo began her charge to the Class of 2021, several awards were given out. Theresa Carriveau ’21 named Professor Jeff Key as the recipient of the SGA Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award, and Madeleine McAllister ’21 presented the Excellence in Service award to Tony Ryals, director of student success and accessibility services. Next, Dean Garrett drew attention to the recipients of the College awards, which were presented earlier in the day.
And then came President Woo’s charge to the class, which began by sharing the special connection she feels to them, having also arrived on campus in the fall of 2017. “There will be, after you, many more classes to come, gathered as you are on this Quad,” she stated. “It is often said that while a mother may love all her children equally, there is something rawer and visceral in the way she is connected to her first born.”
“No sooner than you arrived on this quad and unpacked, you experienced the making of a comprehensive curricular restructuring, the like of which is rarely seen in American academic life,” President Woo reflected. “You saw the generic general education curriculum, largely uniform throughout the land, replaced by a core curriculum that focuses on women leadership, teaching you how to make decisions based on evidence and logical inference, and always with empathy and kindness. The curriculum hopefully taught you a thing or two about solving problems, for yourself and others because that’s what life is good at, throwing problems your way…. Just as you went through these changes for a couple of years and adjusted to new courses and teachers, you experienced the COVID-19 epidemic, a once-in-a-life time occurrence, disrupt the other half of your college life…. You were determined that nothing, not even a worldwide epidemic, would ruin the last year of your college life. You took the lead in protecting yourselves and others, guiding the classes below you how best to follow the extensive protocols the College put in place.”
President Woo concluded her charge by emphasizing the importance of change. “On the cusp of womanhood, in the four years that you have been here, you have experienced profound changes – both personal and institutional. And you accepted them, handled them with grace and tenacity, and in doing so, you became a Sweet Briar woman – a human species known for being truly resilient, kind, and gentle.”
Holla, holla to the Class of 2021!