A heavenly breeze blew through the Quad as the Albemarle Pipes and Drums opened Sweet Briar College’s 110th Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 18. The small but mighty Class of 2019 — 29 undergraduate degree candidates and one M.A.T. graduate — couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to celebrate their incredible accomplishments: not just earning a degree, but choosing Sweet Briar College in the fall of 2015 against all odds.
Naturally, that fierce fighter spirit dominated the morning’s speeches. In her welcome, President Meredith Woo saluted the Sweet Briar community for its bravery, but especially the Class of 2019 for taking a leap of faith. Leading them, Woo noted, was Presidential Medalist Caroline Thomas, who stepped up to the podium first.
Wearing a graduation robe from 1929, Thomas said she wanted to show the “boundless nature” of Sweet Briar. Fighting back tears, she added, “We must remember that everything we do has an impact on our environment around us for future generations to come.” Thomas went on to read a letter written to Sweet Briar’s first graduating class by a student from the Class of 1911, calling them pioneers. “I believe that we, the Class of 2019, are very similar to the first thirty-six,” Thomas explained. “We took a chance on a college that almost did not exist. We were some of the first students to arrive on this campus in August of 2015. We were small, but we were here, and that was the biggest feat of all. … We, Class of 2019, are the pioneers of the Sweet Briar that has just begun its journey.”
Class President Emily Schlosberg praised the strong sisterhood that came with this small class, but noted,“We are so much more than small. The words I would use to describe this class would be ‘strong’, ‘independent,’ ‘courageous’ and of course, ‘fierce.’” An alumna had told her once, she said, that graduating with the Class of 2019 was a badge of honor. “We are one of the smallest, but strongest classes the College has ever seen,” Schlosberg added.
Like Thomas, keynote speaker Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp ’68 felt compelled to invoke history when thinking about the Class of 2019. But in her case, it was her own story. Yeargin-Allsopp, who is the associate director for children with special health care needs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (where she has worked for more than three decades), was the first African American student to attend Sweet Briar College. In her speech, she recalled arriving at Sweet Briar by train in 1966. While reporters thought she was sent by the NAACP, she said, she simply wanted an education that was strong in the sciences so she could prepare for medical school.
“I believe I was called to Sweet Briar ‘for such a time as this,’” she said. “I did not think of myself as brave. And you may not think of yourselves as brave, either, but you were brave in 2015. … As with me, you really did not know what you would face. So many unanswered questions, and yet, you stepped out, and stepped up with a leap of faith and said YES! I imagine most of you did not think you were fulfilling some divine destiny or taking a place among those who have come before and made their mark in history. But, in many ways you were. I believe you sit here today having gotten to this place ‘for such a time as this.’” After retelling the biblical story of Esther (where the phrase originates) and delving into the historical and political events of the 1960s, Yeargin-Allsopp returned to the present day, recapping the past decade and its major global events.
“These are times that require courage, boldness, character and creativity,” Yeargin-Allsopp said, adding she was sure College founder Indiana Fletcher Williams was “looking down today and smiling” at this class and what Sweet Briar had become.
“Embrace the bold and brave legacy of Indiana Fletcher Williams and Sweet Briar. We will be forever grateful to you for stepping up ‘for such a time as this.’”
After conferring the degrees, Acting Dean Jeff Key left the podium to Georgene Vairo ’72, chair of the Sweet Briar Board of Directors. Calling the graduates the “sturdy 30,” Vairo recounted the miracles it took to save Sweet Briar in 2015 — and how alumnae learned in the course of saving their alma mater just how capable they all were. “The more we learned what badasses we all were, the more we knew we had to save Sweet Briar for generations to come,” she said. This brought her to the Class of 2019’s motto: “We are proven by our actions.” Just as fitting as their motto, she added, was their emblem: a lion. “Lions you are,” Vairo said. “Courageous; unique; beautiful; and ready to pounce on any adventure or opportunity. … You have proven by your actions that you are women of consequence.”
Sarah Clement ’75, co-chair of the Alumnae Alliance Council, couldn’t agree more. “You as a class are blessed with a particular kind of grit, fierceness and determination,” she said.
More strong women joined the stage as Thomas, in her role as Student Government Association president, and Maya White, SGA vice president, presented the awards for Excellence in Service and Excellence in Teaching. The latter was presented first to Anna Billias, assistant professor of music, whom student nominators called “the quintessential Renaissance woman,” someone who “cares about her students as if they were her own children,” and a professor who “taught me about self-love and acceptance.” Dean of Students Marcia Thom-Kaley received the Excellence in Service Award for “helping anytime,” being someone who “goes beyond her job description” and being there to support and comfort students whose families live far away.
Citing a biblical inscription by King Solomon on a cornerstone on the west side of Fletcher Hall — “Except the lord build the house they labor in vain who build it.” — President Woo charged the Class of 2019 to keep the faith. “As you go forth in life and engage yourself in various endeavors, I hope you will choose to do something difficult,” she said. “Yes, choose to do something really difficult. And as you grapple with the difficulties life throws at you, remember never, ever, to lose your faith.”
In her benediction, the Rev. Sarah Schofield Wright ’11 brought it back to the day’s fierce theme: “May you be fearless in the pursuit of your dreams and goals.”
Watch a video of the full commencement ceremony below: