It was almost business as usual this morning as Sweet Briar celebrated its 108th commencement — and second since the College remained open. Even the rain, which had been predicted as virtually inevitable, held off. Just in time for the ceremony at 10 a.m., hints of sunlight speckled the quad as families readied their cameras and cell phones.
It was no surprise to retiring president Phillip C. Stone, who is used to miracles.
“At Sweet Briar College, it never rains on commencement, right?” he joked, adding the College had reason to celebrate not just being open, but completing another successful year: “The miracles continue at Sweet Briar College.”
Next, Presidential Medalist and Student Government Association president Jessie Schuster reflected on the Class of 2017’s collective achievements. From thousands of credit hours to a plethora of internships and study abroad experiences, the 78 graduates had worked hard, she said. They would take the world by storm, but leave a permanent mark on Sweet Briar through their enduring friendships with each other, faculty and staff.
Class president Rachel Higgins marveled at the collective power of her fellow graduates.
“We came together and believed in Sweet Briar,” she said. “We have seen what the incredible alumnae can do, and soon we will join their ranks … I hope we will carry the spirit and tenacity of this incredible place with us.”
Keynote speaker Kathryn Thornton, a retired NASA astronaut and director of the aerospace engineering program at the University of Virginia, spoke about social and scientific progress, and the graduates’ small — but important role — in it.
Describing history as an exponential curve that always appeared steeper ahead than when looking back, Thornton admitted that the future could seem daunting. Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin had been replaced by newer scientific revolutions — most recently, advances in biotechnology that could yield equal amounts of good and bad, Thornton warned.
“For our honored graduates today, this is the starting point of your slice of history,” she said. “Over your lifetime, you will have to deal with the exponentially increasing pace of new technologies, each with its own potentials, limitations and dangers.
“My plea to you is that throughout your careers, you become and remain actively involved in shaping policies regarding research and uses of new technology, in your profession, through your professional societies, and as a participant in the democratic process of this country. If you don’t, someone far less informed will. … You know that science matters. Facts matter. Knowledge matters. Logic, reasoning and respect for those who hold a different point of view all matter. You learned these things here at Sweet Briar.”
Following Thornton’s address, it was time for Dean Pam DeWeese to confer a total of 88 degrees, including 10 for M.A.T. candidates.
On behalf of the board of directors, chairwoman Teresa Pike Tomlinson ’87 congratulated the graduates on returning to — and now graduating from — Sweet Briar. “You were wise beyond your years,” she said. “You are our heroes, and today, we celebrate you!”
Next came a special honor: the presentation of the board of directors’ second Founder’s Medal, which honors “particularly significant figures in the history of the College.” The recipient was no surprise to anyone. Following in Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer’s footsteps, it was President Stone who received the 2017 medal from Tomlinson.
After an address from Alumnae Alliance Council co-chair Debra Elkins ’93, Higgins and Schuster returned to the podium to hand out the annual SGA awards for Excellence in Teaching and Excellence in Service. The former went to Heidi Samuelson, a visiting assistant professor of philosophy and “straight-up genius,” according to one student’s nomination. The staff award was given to Barb Watts, director of career services and “a light on this campus.”
All-College student honors followed, with Madalyn Nicole Lee receiving the Penelope Lane Czarra Award. Mary Stuart McDevitt received the Connie M. Guion Award; Hannah Casey Beall accepted the Walker Family Award; and Alicia Lorraine Wooten added the Judith Molinar Elkins Prize to her list of honors. As the highest-ranking member of her class, Holly Evelyn Rueger received the Alpa Lambda Delta Award and was named the Emily Watts McVea Scholar.
“This is our graduation, and I say ‘our’ because I’m going with you,” Stone said in his charge to the Class of 2017.
“As a class of historic significance, I charge you never to forget your experiences, your friendships, and the values instilled in you here; to be engaged, loyal and generous alumnae; to remain loyal to your college, for which you have already shown such fidelity and love, committing that through your devotion to the highest aspirations of our common vision you will demonstrate that at Sweet Briar College, roses shall forever bloom; to make certain that future generations of young women will have the same opportunity for a Sweet Briar liberal arts education you have experienced; to live lives of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and service to others; to assure that your words, your actions and your lives make you worthy of the vision of Indiana Fletcher Williams, worthy of all the contributions and sacrifices of others and worthy to wear the rose.”
Watch the full commencement ceremony here: