A festive tune opened Sweet Briar College’s 114th session as faculty and senior staff marched into Murchison Lane Auditorium on Wednesday afternoon. It fit the mood of President Meredith Woo, who was happy about a number of things.
During orientation, she had hosted a group of new students and reported she was “thrilled” to find they had come to Sweet Briar from all over the world. But what made her just as happy, she added, was to see the “massive transformation” in returning students. “I was a bit overcome with emotion [during the morning’s faculty meeting]. You can see as they become wiser … more thoughtful,” she said. Another thing that had made her smile in the last few months, Woo added, was the campus’ physical transformation as it continues to advance its agricultural enterprises.
Student Government Association President Cailey Cobb ’20 took to the podium next to offer words of advice for each class — and a few words for everyone else. “Please pour into this campus,” she closed, “Everyone in this room has something more to offer this college.”
One of them is Vice President of Finance, Operations and Auxiliary Enterprises Luther Griffith, who was announced first as one of two new vice presidents by Woo. She admitted that his title was a difficult one to remember, and attempted to recount every aspect of his large portfolio, which, she admitted, means he has “more things to do than God himself.” Though new to his role, Griffith has lived on campus for several years and has volunteered his expertise in the Career Services Center, as well as taught in the business program.
Next, Woo introduced Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Teresa Garrett, as well as new faculty and staff. In her remarks, Garrett noted the kinship she shares with the Class of 2023. “You and I together will be learning and growing in this place,” she said. “Look around you at the Sweet Briar community that surrounds you. They are here to help us succeed.”
Looking back at her own undergraduate experience at a larger institution, Garrett said she realized that it planted in her a “spirit of exploration. It was there that I started to become something.” First, she discovered cycling. As a mountain biker and later a road cycler, she found the “freedom to explore,” Garrett said. It taught her to explore her limits and her environment, and to ask herself: “Can I find the courage?”
Now that she’s here, Garrett said, the Blue Ridge Mountains are calling to her. She’s already scoped out campus, and couldn’t believe the size of it. “I implore you to explore this beautiful campus — all 3,250 acres of it,” she said. “It’s huge! This just illustrates to you how much Sweet Briar has to offer. … Let this place inspire you, center you and ground you.”
In addition to exploring campus, students should explore new fields of study and take courses outside their comfort zones, Garrett said. “In those explorations, be sure to make connections,” she noted. “College is this unique time to make connections to not only the place, but the people. So many people are deeply loyal to the college or university they attended, but none more so than Sweet Briar women. Connect with each other. Connect with the history of this place.”
Making meaningful connections takes time, she admitted, and though she had asked, Garrett joked, the engineering faculty was no closer to finishing their time machine. “Take the time to listen to one another and be authentically present for one another in your time here,” she added. “In your time here as Sweet Briar women, I would love to hear what you’ve discovered in your explorations, what has challenged you, and what you are connecting to. I would love to hear your stories. And maybe I will have some to share with you, as well, as we embark on this journey together.”
The Convocation Address was delivered by longtime community member Anna Billias, an adjunct assistant professor of music and recipient of the 2019 SGA Excellence in Teaching Award. Billias admitted that when she came to the U.S. 14 years ago, she did not think she was “cut out to be a teacher.” One year later, she was employed at Sweet Briar College and loved it instantly.
“You, the ladies of the 21st century, determined and bright, fearless and sincere, are the reason I loved my job so much,” she said.
Recalling the College’s near-closure in 2015, Billias explained how the campaign to save it succeeded — not by miracle, but perseverance. “I believed in Sweet Briar and never lost my faith in this place, and it did not disappear into the dark night. You would think magic? I don’t consider it to be magic. It is teamwork. It is the spirit of unity, of determination to succeed, it is resilience, it is the spiritual overcoming the physical.”
She said it was that same attitude that has helped her overcome other obstacles in her personal and professional life. “Listen to your gut, trust the goodness of your soul and treat others as if this is the last time you see them,” she told the audience. “The universe will embrace you for the goodness that you spread and make your life journey memorable and special.”
In her charge to students, Woo reflected on the year 1919. Lots of national and global transformations took place that year, she said, although many didn’t play out as expected. One big change, women’s suffrage in the U.S., however, was part of a movement that continued to gain traction and hasn’t stopped since, Woo explained.
“We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Woo said. “That doesn’t mean that women didn’t have to fight for more rights throughout the 20th century, but the beat continues. So my charge to you is this: You are part of a movement that is the greatest movement the world has seen. … The movement of women, their struggle for equal rights has borne tremendous fruit. So I want you to think about what it means to be part of the world’s greatest progress. And also to ask yourselves: In the 20th century, women fought in order to obtain equal rights. You have it. You have equal rights. Maybe not all is perfect, but you have equal rights, and the future is yours. You own this century. And what does the owner of this time and place, the owner of the 21st century, do? Well, that is the charge I give you.
“Think about it carefully. Think about what it means to be an empowered woman, a woman who is capable of thinking, who is capable of inquiry, who is capable of imagining, capable of being creative. Not to become what men are. Not to acquire what others have. But to imagine something different in the smithy of your soul. To own the new century and your future in new and creative, meaningful ways. And I promise you that I will endeavor along with the faculty and the superlative staff to help you in your journey to discover and invent creatively what it means for you to be part of the greatest social movement and imagine it in ways that are utterly different, utterly creative and utterly unprecedented. The world is your oyster.”