Jessica Fortner is the recipient of the 2015 Presidential Medal, the highest honor that Sweet Briar bestows on her students.
The award, announced at the 2015 Awards Convocation on Tuesday, May 5, is a mantle she didn’t expect to wear, but she appreciates the company she is in.
“I never would have thought that out of my entire class I would win,” says the Roanoke native. “We just have so many amazing women with outstanding accomplishments, that it is truly an honor.
“I wouldn’t say I aspired to win it, but I do remember seeing the medal given to Alex St. Pierre [’12] my first year and thinking that it would be amazing to be a recipient.”
Rather, Fortner has devoted her college years to making the most of opportunities and “becoming who I am meant to be,” she says.
She is double-majoring in mathematics and classical studies with a language concentration. She is also a music minor. So far, it all fits: She has just accepted a full-time job as director of youth and children’s ministries at Redwood United Methodist Church in Rocky Mount and will pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching in secondary mathematics at Hollins University.
Her plans are no surprise to assistant professor of music Marcia Thom Kaley.
“Jessi is simply one of the most sincere people I have ever met,” Thom Kaley says. “She has a heart for ministry and will someday be in a position to give care and solace to the world. I truly believe that will happen.”
Nor was Fortner’s naming as this year’s Presidential Medalist a shock to associate professor of classics Eric Casey.
The award — a smaller version of the medal of office each Sweet Briar president received when inaugurated — is given to a graduating senior whose achievements represent the full range of the College’s educational values.
“She embodies the breadth of interests and achievements we all want to see in our students and in ourselves,” Casey said, enumerating several ways Fortner has demonstrated such range this year alone. “Jessi read Euripides and Homer in the original Greek, learned high-level mathematical concepts, and continued her thorough education in music theory and practice.”
While the medal rewards intellectual achievement, honorees must also have shown distinction in a combination of areas, including community service; the arts; global awareness; fitness and athletic achievement; and leadership, civility and integrity of character.
Among the examples of Fortner’s leadership is her role as a Sweet Spirit and assistant to the College chaplain, especially during the transition following the chaplain’s departure. She is also known for her enthusiasm for Sweet Briar and “commitment to her academics, jobs, and this community as a whole.”
Fortner’s academic excellence is evident: a dean’s list regular and selected for Who’s Who Among Students, she is a member of the first-year honor society Alpha Lambda Delta, the national leadership honor society Omicron Delta Kappa, and the national honor society for classical studies Eta Sigma Phi.
She has worked as a tutor in Greek and an admission docent, led clubs and program offices, and served as a team leader in the intercollegiate cross country club.
As the Sweet Briar Outdoor Program office manager, she undertook instructor training above and beyond the scope of her role. For this, one nominator noted, “[Fortner] inspires those around her because she is a true team player who keeps a positive and upbeat attitude even when she’s deep in a cave!”
During the presentation of the award at convocation, President James Jones looked up after reading these words.
“That’s a great line,” he observed to the faculty, staff and students gathered in Murchison Lane Auditorium.
For her part, Fortner says she has a lot to thank Sweet Briar for, too. Asked to name a favorite professor, she said there’s no way — five is the best she can do. Jeff Jones (music), Eric Casey (classical studies), Bryce Walker (classical studies), Steve Wassell (math) and Jim Kirkwood (math) came to mind.
“Each of these professors encouraged me to do and be the best I could be, and I would not be the person I am today without them,” she says.
“They spent countless hours outside of the classroom helping me succeed academically and non-academically, challenging me to go farther and be better. I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude for the place they have held in my life and the person they have helped me become.”
Fortner, like the Presidential Medalists before her, is keenly aware of its prestige in Sweet Briar lore. In light of the school’s announced closure on Aug. 25, the excitement of wearing it is tempered with sorrow, she said.
“When I walked out of the auditorium, and saw the faces of the underclasswomen, my peers, and my friends, I was deeply saddened to know that I could very well be the last Presidential Medalist of Sweet Briar College.”
NOTE: Following a mediated settlement signed June 23, 2015, the closure decision was reversed. The College never closed and remains open.