On Wednesday afternoon, one day after it was supposed to close forever, Sweet Briar College emphatically celebrated its 110th Opening Convocation. Students beamed as the many returning — and some new — faculty members marched into a jam-packed Murchison Lane Auditorium.
President Phil Stone’s welcome was greeted by several minutes of deafening applause.
“We’re here today to celebrate not only that we have it, but that we kept it,” he said, referring to the College.
Before proceeding further, Stone asked students, faculty, staff and alumnae to pause for a moment of silence for the victims of yesterday’s deadly shooting in Moneta.
Despite beginning on such a somber note, this was a day to celebrate, Stone said, and there would be many things worth celebrating in the coming year. He also reminded the community that it would take hard work and honesty to get there.
Stone left the podium to Student Government Association president Katie Craig ’16, who admitted that she “cried like a baby” the last time she was up there. The last few months had changed everyone, she said.
“It is not just good enough for us to survive; our goal is to thrive and continue to show the world how Sweet Briar women break through barriers beyond all odds,” Craig said. “As I said this past spring, for those who truly know what Sweet Briar is, you knew that we could never find it or recreate it somewhere else. We’re home, and we’re home to stay.”
Interim Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Pam DeWeese followed Craig with a reflection on some memorable characters in Spanish literature and their parallels to the story of Sweet Briar. Unlike Don Quixote, the alumnae who came to the defense of Sweet Briar were not tilting at windmills. Our story is a happy ending that is also the beginning of one yet to be written, she said, noting that the page is “waiting to be filled.”
The next three speakers came armed with a prop, as well as last year’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
Psychology professor Dan Gottlieb brought a bag of shredded paper to illustrate the absurdity of the last few months and the “battle of will and intellect” that happened to save the College.
Math professor Jim Kirkwood reflected on the bell-ringing that punctuated the faculty protests over the last few months with a smaller version, accompanied by excerpts from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Bells.”
Music professor Marcia Thom-Kaley brought lots of tears, a Starbucks cup and a set of pink and green keys to symbolize Sweet Briar’s new beginning. The “endless sobbing” that the dean’s office had threatened to put in the script in lieu of Thom-Kaley’s speech, which she finally finished that morning, quickly spread through the audience as she reflected on the remarkable love and support she had experienced on campus since March 3.
“I love every single blade of grass on these glorious three thousand, two-hundred and fifty acres, and I dare anyone to ever try to close it again,” she said.
To ensure that the College’s story would continue to be shared, Thom-Kaley named first-year Caroline Thomas “keeper of the story” and handed her the savingsweetbriar.com bracelet she had been wearing since the closure announcement. In four years, she added, she would want the bracelet back to pass on to another first-year.
Tears of joy made way for lots of laughs when the Vixen, adorned with a sash that read “Perpetuity,” crashed the stage to hug and high-five everyone, including the president.
After recognizing the recipients of the first Nancy Godwin Baldwin Scholarship, Stone concluded the ceremony with his charge to students, faculty and staff.
“I charge you with making Sweet Briar College not only the model for higher education, the model for liberal arts residential education, but a model for women’s education,” he said. “We have seen what it can do, and we will preserve it.”
See more photos of the ceremony here.
Watch the complete video of Opening Convocation here.