Right out of the gate, the strength and unwavering determination of the entire Sweet Briar community radiated across the campus and the country—from students, faculty and staff to parents, families and alumnae. As the first institution in Virginia to start the 2020–2021 academic year, everyone was excited to finally be back together, in-person and on campus, for our 115th session after having shifted to remote learning in the spring.
It was a joyous several days in early August when students returned to Sweet Briar. The weather was perfect. The landscape and historic buildings across campus were as beautiful and inviting as ever. The feeling in the air was a mix of excitement and security as everyone experienced first-hand the success of the extensive health and safety measures that had been put in place.
First-year and transfer students immediately settled in and explored their new home. Returning students could hardly contain their excitement to be back at the place they love and to see their friends after such a long separation. For faculty and staff, seeing the campus come to life brought smiles and waves of positive energy. With close to 150 young women joining the family this year, Sweet Briar has grown to nearly 400 students. During the Daisy Ceremony, new students crossed a symbolic bridge in the Quad to receive their daisy. With this flower, they become Sweet Briar women on their journey towards becoming great leaders.
Both the location and message of this year’s Convocation address echoed the zeitgeist and physical reality of the moment. We’ve had to confront difficult situations head-on, overcome challenges and work together to build sustainable solutions for the future. All the while, the need for social distancing during the pandemic has reconnected us with the natural environment, and oddly enough, with each other on a new level.
This year, Convocation was held outside in the Dell. The Sweet Briar community brought out their picnic blankets and camping chairs and spread out across the lawn as President Woo, Dean Garrett and SGA president Madeleine McAllister ’21 delivered their speeches from the bandstand. Being outside against the backdrop of Ralph Adams Cram’s architecture and looking out towards the greenhouse, there was a sense of connection to nature, to history, to each other and to our shared purpose. Gathering outside seemed to foster the feeling that we are one; we are in this together, and together, we will overcome every challenge and obstacle.
From the bandstand, President Woo opened Convocation with great enthusiasm for everyone finally being able to return to campus. Much of her address was inspired by two centennials, each of which provided opportunities for reflection: the certification of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote and the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic. But first and foremost, she recognized the Sweet Briar community’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One hundred years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, the faculty, staff and students of Sweet Briar rose to the occasion, taking care of each other with extraordinary commitment and solidarity. Nothing has changed in a hundred years,” said President Woo. “I would like to take this occasion to thank the staff of Sweet Briar College who have worked around the clock to ensure that our community stays safe and healthy. Their work is often invisible but always indispensable.”
President Woo then welcomed nearly 150 first-year and transfer students, encouraging them to pursue academic challenges, build enduring friendships, collaborate with faculty and create life-long memories.
Next, Madeleine McAlliser ’21, president of the SGA, took the podium. Madeleine thanked the president and her cabinet for their decisive leadership, the essential workers on campus and in the Amherst community for keeping everyone safe and the alumnae for their selfless gifts of time and talent. “You have given so much so that we may reap the rewards of an in-person learning community,” said Madeleine. She continued by calling out the special power of this place to foster a culture of empowerment and responsibility. “The beauty of our community is that our connection is spiritual, too. Those who have passed through and those that are here now, we will always be linked.”
Madeleine closed her remarks with a heartfelt acknowledgement of how much everyone missed being able to celebrate the Class of 2020 in the spring, how proud she is of this year’s upper-class women and how exciting it is to meet such a large incoming class.
Following an introduction of new faculty and staff, including Aaron Basko, vice president of enrollment management, President Woo turned the podium over to Teresa Garrett, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the College.
Dean Garrett, who can regularly be seen enjoying the campus on her runs, remarked on the beautiful day and how holding Convocation in the Dell could be the start of a new tradition. Now in her second year at Sweet Briar, Dean Garrett framed her address around the concept of constraint which spoke on many levels to both the present difficult times and the historic milestone 100 years ago when women won the right to vote.
“We are in the midst of a global public health crisis that has placed constraints on us for the foreseeable future. Yet, within and because of these constraints, we can be here together today,” said Dean Garrett. “As we navigate these new waters together, I want to encourage us to remember that we have always had different constraints that impacted each of us in different ways. And that within restrictions, creativity can blossom, community can be sustained and meaningful things can happen.”
Dean Garrett expanded upon the impact of constraints and how they affect individuals from all backgrounds on issues of human rights, social injustice and inequality.
“As Sweet Briar women, I call on you to embrace the challenges that await you during your time here to become someone who fights against these unjust restraints, whether they impact us personally or not. Because you have access to education, I charge you to be someone who will acknowledge that privilege and use it to, as we say here, ‘work for the good and work for the right.’”
President Woo returned to the podium for her closing remarks. She charged the students to advocate for their own rights and for the rights of everyone who is marginalized.
“After a century we have come full circle,” says President Woo. “We have a pandemic reminiscent of the 1918 flu that is global in scope, and in its midst, a push for racial equality and inclusion that has been too long in coming. There is a profound simplicity in three words: Black lives matter.
“By virtue of who you are—Sweet Briar women at this time and in this place—you have a responsibility like no other, like no students in other colleges. Sweet Briar College is created with the sole purpose to educate women so that you can realize your full potential as human beings in an environment without misogyny or intimidation. Gender equity is your birthright; it is also your responsibility. Just as for a century, women agitated to acquire voting rights, I hope you will continue to agitate, agitate and agitate for your rights and rights of others who are marginalized, as women have been.”
Now, with the fall semester well underway and a successful three-week session behind us, students are immersed in the robust 12-week session. For the past month, the campus has come alive again with students and faculty taking full advantage of the numerous outdoor learning environments. You see small groups spread out across the Dell and the fields, meandering through the vineyard and greenhouse and exploring the woods and trails. With a notebook, sketchbook or laptop in hand, they are reconnecting to the land, to themselves and with each other. It is a beautiful and remarkable sight to behold. Holla, holla to our nearly 400 students for navigating the start to this unique academic year with grace, responsibility and determination.