“We are in this thing together,” said the Rev. Matt Gaventa in his invocation to open the 111th academic session of Sweet Briar College. The chaplain offered a prayer seeking blessings for the “sacred work we do.”
President Phillip C. Stone’s message at Opening Convocation Wednesday, Aug. 24, took the sentiment a bit further. Last year, he said, we celebrated saving Sweet Briar — an against-all-odds turn of events he credited largely to the alumnae.
“But last August, it was our turn,” he said to the students, faculty and staff assembled in Murchison Lane Auditorium. “Another miracle was needed. We needed to keep the school open.”
Then he ticked off the many accomplishments that marked “a terrific year” — step by step, bringing back people and programs, raising money, recruiting students, and collecting awards and honors along the way.
“We had no time to wring our hands over our problems; we had work to do, and together, we performed the needed miracles,” Stone said, thanking the people who made them happen.
Perhaps it was a show of the resolve that seemed to have replaced the giddy joy, and tears and raw emotions of last year, that the next several speakers barely mentioned the closing.
Student Government Association president Jessie Schuster ’17 exhorted her fellow students to live every moment of the coming year to its fullest.
“Do not leave this campus with regrets,” she said. “Whether you are a senior or a first-year, there is something new for you: a passion to discover, a friend to meet, or a difference you can make on campus.”
Dean Pam DeWeese couldn’t quite avoid the subject of the closing as she introduced new faculty. She read their names, then acknowledged others who were returning after a year away.
“Welcome back to those of you who took ‘sabbatical’ last year,” she quipped.
DeWeese also introduced the two winners of the Excellence in Teaching Award, bestowed by the student body last spring. Linda Fink, Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology, made a case that Sweet Briar students can be compared to the monarch butterfly, a migratory species.
Begging the forbearance of the nonGuionites in the room — Sweet Briar code for people not preoccupied with the hard sciences — Fink explained in biological and ecological terms how the monarch’s geographic travels can be detected in certain of its tissues. The same is true for people, she said.
After just a few days, drinking Sweet Briar’s water already has changed the “hydrogen isotope ratios” in the cells lining their stomachs, she told the new students.
“What is my takeaway message to you? You will change at Sweet Briar,” Fink said.
“Some of your slang, food preferences and dress habits will change easily and quickly. Habits of mind, intellectual passions and life goals will change more slowly. You, like the monarch butterfly, will retain evidence of where you were before, and also accumulate evidence that you migrated here.”
Some important Sweet Briar influences will remain through life, she said.
“Getting to know you during your years here, and watching your life journeys afterwards, is one of your professors’ greatest joys.”
Associate professor of music Jeff Jones, borrowing a concept from New York Times columnist David Brooks, explained how to develop “eulogy virtues” along with “resume virtues” while in college.
“There is no secret recipe to developing resume virtues,” Jones said. “Try stuff. Zero in on things you’re passionate about. Keep at it. Work with mentors to refine your knowledge and skills.”
First, you do these things for yourself, he told the students — to get a job, to succeed. But the personal character that other people will eulogize comes from using those things in the service of others. When purpose becomes greater than self, “empathy, compassion, resolve, courage, resilience [and] grit” will follow, he said.
Students who want to will have no trouble finding people and resources at Sweet Briar to help them cultivate both kinds of virtues, Jones said.
“I hope you do; because the world needs you. And its needs keep evolving. We will always need leaders who apply their hearts and minds toward the betterment of our ever-evolving world, women for whom the impossible is just another problem to solve.”
With those last words, Jones nodded toward President Stone and thanked him for the borrowed line.
In his opening remarks, President Stone had noted the Daisy Ceremony, introduced this year during orientation, in which incoming students symbolically and literally crossed over a bridge. On the other side, they received a daisy, becoming part of a community waiting with open arms.
“The symbolism of the daisy to be followed at commencement with the presentation of the rose reminds us of the heritage and special culture of this institution,” he said.
Now, as he closed the convocation with his charge for the academic year, the president again noted the miracles the community had so far wrought.
“In each case, they were attended by heroic efforts and hard work,” he said.
Much more work lies ahead, he suggested, but it’s vital to remember Sweet Briar’s mission: to educate young women. The work is merely means to that end.
“I charge you, then, this year to create yet another miracle at Sweet Briar College,” he said.
“Let us together create the continuing, and most important, miracle of Sweet Briar College: to empower and educate you young women to build and reshape the world however your passions lead you, to inspire and develop leaders who will take accountability for their communities and their environment, leaders who will bring the genius of Sweet Briar College to bear on a world desperately needing your gifts.”
Following Chaplain Gaventa’s benediction and amid the cheerful cacophony that always accompanies Opening Convocation, the crowd converged on the steps of Babcock Fine Arts Center. A Homestead Creamery truck waited at the curb to serve ice cream and a queue formed in the bright August sun.