Forged by fire: 2016 Presidential Medalist’s mettle is tested

Katelyn Ashley Craig is Sweet Briar's 2016 Presidential Medalist.
Katelyn Ashley “Katie” Craig is Sweet Briar’s 2016 Presidential Medalist.

A flicker of surprise registered in Katie Craig’s expression when she saw who was already in President Phillip Stone’s office. Suddenly, the meeting with the president — hastily called but not surprising given her role in SGA — seemed a lot less ordinary.

Ever gracious, Stone allowed no time for alarm, immediately beginning to explain why she’d been called — though he didn’t give away the punch line too soon.

“Katie, I want to do something that gives me a great deal of pleasure. You have been recommended for special recognition by the College,” he began, before listing examples of academic excellence, leadership, service and even athletic participation as reasons why.

“So, it’s a real pleasure for me to present you with this year’s Presidential Medal,” he said.

Craig’s hand went to her mouth as he reached the denouement, hiding a smile even as the tears welled up.

The medal, a replica of the one worn on ceremonial occasions by the president, is the highest honor that Sweet Briar bestows on her students.

“Those are tears of joy, aren’t they?” Stone asked. “We’re done with the tears of sorrow.”

President Phil Stone congratulates Sweet Briar's 2016 Presidential Medalist, Katie Craig.
President Phil Stone congratulates Sweet Briar’s 2016 Presidential Medalist, Katie Craig.

Craig was caught off guard. The Academic Recognition Dinner, where traditionally the Presidential Medal was awarded in front of the recipient’s peers, was not for two more days. In recent years, it was given at an awards convocation at the end of the year, so it was to have been the first dinner in Craig’s four years at Sweet Briar and she was disappointed that she would not be able to attend. Invitations are extended to students on the dean’s list — where her name has never failed to appear.

Instead, she would be away from campus for a prior engagement, so the dean’s office arranged to have the moment recorded.

“Since we can’t present this to you at the dinner,” Stone told her, “we wanted to make sure it was still done in a way that fits the occasion.”

Craig’s Sweet Briar resume is the stuff of Presidential Medalists. She’s a business major and dance minor working toward an honors degree. She earned the College’s Leadership Certificate under the former three-year program and is actively involved in developing an alternative leadership program this year.

She is the recipient of numerous scholarship awards, the First-year Emerging Leader Award, the Dew Leadership Scholarship for the past two years and was a Sweet Briar Founders’ Scholar from 2012-2015. She was elected Student Government Association president for her junior year and was re-elected as a senior. She also was her sophomore and first-year class president. She is a member of the Omicron Delta Kappa, Sigma Beta Delta and Alpha Lambda Delta honor societies.

Craig’s campus jobs include admissions ambassador, an instructor in the dance department’s after-school program for 3- to 7-year-olds, dance department assistant, resident advisor and box office assistant. She also worked with children in the dance program with disabilities such as hearing and balance deficits and emotional challenges.

Off campus, the Fredericksburg resident has completed internships at Creative Dance Center in Seattle, Holy Cross Regional Catholic School in Lynchburg and, most recently, at GEICO in her hometown.

The latter resulted in a job offer in the insurance company’s management development leadership program, which she believes makes her the first senior in her class to secure employment after graduation. The news came on Aug. 8, before she knew she was coming back to Sweet Briar — a dilemma resulting from last year’s attempted closing of the College.

“I knew when [Sweet Briar] stayed open there was really no way that I couldn’t come back because it defined me, and if something changes you like that, even though I had no idea what it was going to look like, why would you want to run away from something that made you who you are?”

Craig had also discovered that no other college would give her the same freedom that she’d enjoyed at Sweet Briar to pursue her intellectual interests.

“I couldn’t find somewhere that would let me take ancient hieroglyphics and be a business major — and I loved that class. Something that sounds so simple as that made me want to come back,” she says.

Faculty members who nominated Craig for the Presidential Medal cited her many accomplishments at Sweet Briar, but it was her steadfastness through the turmoil of last year that some said made her truly stand out. As the SGA president when the announcement was made, hers was a lonely position: the previous administration wanted her support.

Craig dutifully provided it until she could no longer agree with the rationale for closing. Writing in support of her nomination, dance professor Ella Magruder recalled the day Craig led the student body into a faculty meeting.

“I will never forget, as long as I live, the moment … members of the student body filed [in] to support and applaud the faculty for standing up and opposing the closure of the College. I shed tears, as did others around me, touched by that kind expression of both gratitude and determination.”

In addition to intellectual achievement, the Presidential Medal is given to a graduating senior for distinction in a combination of community service, contribution to the arts, global awareness, fitness and athletic achievement, and leadership, civility and integrity.

Each of Craig’s nominators touched upon these characteristics, but athletic director and head tennis coach Teresa Boylan perhaps said it best. Boylan came to know her this year when Craig joined the tennis team to help fill holes in the roster left when so many students transferred away.

“I see Katie wanting to learn and get better, and help those around her also do better, and to do the ‘right thing,’ ” Boylan wrote. “I see these qualities daily as a new tennis athlete and team member.

“Her work ethic and attitude are qualities that I know set a standard for those around her; she has a ‘stubbornness-with-a-smile’ and is an asset to our team in a variety of ways; more importantly, she has been an asset to our campus community throughout a year of tests.”