Tears and cheers dominate 2015 Awards Convocation

The Concert Choir, led by Marcia Thom Kaley, welcomed students, faculty and staff to the 2015 Awards Convocation.
The Concert Choir, led by Marcia Thom Kaley, welcomed students, faculty and staff to the 2015 Awards Convocation.

As the first notes of the “Sweet Briar Song” rose from Murchison Lane’s stage and flooded its dimly lit auditorium, it was clear that this year’s Awards Convocation wasn’t going to be like any other ceremony before it. Clad in robes, the seniors led the processional into the theater, followed by the faculty, as the Concert Choir resurrected another classic — “We Are From SBC” — before, fittingly, ending with the Wizard of Oz’s “Already Home.”

Welcoming the campus community, President James Jones noted that all Sweet Briar students had accomplished “great things” and deserved applause, which was promptly given. He then left the podium to Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall, who asked all of the dean’s list students to stand and be recognized before announcing the various departmental awards in alphabetical order.

“The end of the academic year is always a moment when we gather to celebrate those things that we do well,” Jessen-Marshall said. “Today is in recognition of our best and our brightest, of those who set themselves apart in academic achievement and commitment to community.”

Accompanied by loud cheers from the crowd and heartfelt hugs from their department chairs, the student recipients made their way across the stage one by one — some of them more than once. (A complete list of awards is below.)

Ashley Baker ’15 received the James Lewis Howe Award in chemistry, sponsored by the Blue Ridge section of the American Chemical Society, as well as the Jean Taylor Meyer Memorial American Poets Prize for her poem “Stationary.” Lydia Ethridge ’15 took home the Pauline Roberts Otis Award — given each year to a senior who has participated in the Junior Year in France program and has the highest GPA — as well as the Anne Gary Pannell Taylor Award In History. Sixtine Abrial ’15 was honored for excellence in both French and German with the L’alliance Francaise De Lynchburg award and the German Embassy Book Prize, which she shared with classmates Stacey McKimmey Karmen and Alyssa B. Sarmiento.

Finally, there was Jessica Fortner ’15, who received not just the Mathematical Sciences Award, but also the Presidential Medal, the College’s highest honor bestowed on a senior. The latter was presented to her by Jones at the very end of the ceremony.

Annie Jones (left) receives an SGA Excellence in Service Award from Katie Craig.
Annie Jones (left) receives an SGA Excellence in Service Award from Katie Craig.

While the event was intended to focus on student achievements, the students took the opportunity to focus instead on the faculty and staff.

Student Government Association president Katie Craig ’16 announced that, unlike in years past, there would be three recipients each for the SGA’s Excellence in Service and Excellence in Teaching awards. Before naming the winners, Craig read the names of all 133 nominees, asking them to stand and be recognized by the community.

If there was a dry eye left before Craig’s introduction of the first recipient, it was all over by the time she announced Tasha Gillum’s name.

Between tears, Craig praised the assistant dean of first-year student engagement and programs — and 2004 alumna — for her “contagious spirit” and for exemplifying “not only what a Sweet Briar woman is, but also what a Sweet Briar woman does.”

Gillum, who was unable to accept the award in person, was followed by Annie Jones, director of residence life, who sprinted to the stage raising her fists in victory as the students cheered her on. Her “unmatched humor,” along with her “kindness,” “tenacity” and “relentless dedication to Sweet Briar’s students” had won her the award.

“She is not only a staff member, but also a cherished friend to all who meet her,” Craig said.

The third Excellence in Service award went to director of recruitment and 2004 graduate Grace Loughhead, who was in tears by the time she reached the stage.

Katie Craig (right) congratulates Grace Loughhead.
Katie Craig (right) congratulates Grace Loughhead.

“Although her job description changed drastically on March 3, this staff member has fought tirelessly to ensure as smooth a transition as possible for our students to find their new academic homes,” Craig said.

“It is through difficult moments like these that you can truly define what Sweet Briar is. It’s not just a place. Each of us carries Sweet Briar with us through the hearts and minds of our community. The relationships between Sweet Briar students, faculty and staff are not limited to the work we have done here. As we’ve said before, we are a family. It is with this spirit that this staff member’s compassion, strength, optimism, and love for her school resonate with each of us.”

Katherine Hoyt ’15, chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, had the difficult job of following Craig to announce the three Excellence in Teaching recipients.

“I’d like to apologize for the fact that seeing other people cry makes me cry,” she began, wiping her eyes.

She then called psychology professor and chair Dan Gottlieb’s name to rousing applause.

” ‘More than any professor I’ve had, he has watched me grow up,’ ” Hoyt said, reading from a student’s nomination. ” ‘I’ve changed a lot since I was eighteen, as a student, a worker, a researcher, a thinker and a human being, and whether he realizes it or not, his influence on me has been profound. I’m more grateful to him than I could ever tell him. He’s been generous with his time, he’s been understanding but has never coddled me, and, most importantly, he’s done his job commendably.”

The standing ovations that followed Gottlieb’s award were repeated twice as Hoyt announced the other two recipients of the Excellence in Teaching award: “Queen of the music department” and “mother of Sweet Briar” Marcia Thom Kaley and math professor and chair Jim Kirkwood.

Kirkwood, Hoyt said, was her first advisor at Sweet Briar.

President Jones (right) applauds Jim Kirkwood, one of three recipients of the Excellence in Teaching award.
President Jones (right) applauds Jim Kirkwood, one of three recipients of the Excellence in Teaching award.

“I liked him so much that I kept him as my advisor until the last possible second,” she said, fighting back tears. “He is understanding, encouraging and wise. He has been given this award for his determination, support and endless kindness.”

Thom Kaley, Hoyt said, was “a constant source of tissues and chocolate, of advice and comfort, of sympathy and tough love.”

No matter what, she added, Thom Kaley always put the students first.

“She has opened her entire self up to the students of Sweet Briar: her office, her arms, her heart, even her home,” Hoyt said.

“One student described her as the perfect Sweet Briar woman: dedicated, determined, committed, loving and friendly. Her impossibly buoyant attitude in the face of great adversity … gives her students the strength to carry on.”

Clearly moved by the many tears and hugs around him, Jones gathered himself quickly to announce the Presidential Medalist before closing the ceremony with a reminder to students.

“As you now begin your adult lives, you will come to understand how much of your own successes in life depends upon the foundations you have all received here at the College,” he said.

“Think hard … about three individuals on the faculty or the staff of Sweet Briar College. Drop by their offices. Shake their hand, or give them a hug. You will see that two of the most important words you will ever utter are ‘thank’ and ‘you.’ ”

Outside of Babcock, students, faculty and staff were greeted by plenty of sunshine and brownies, and the cheerful noise of Sweet Briar’s steel orchestra played.

The Following Departmental Awards Were Handed Out During the Ceremony

  • Anthropology and Archaeology Department Book Prize: Laura Melisa Patlan ’15
  • Kathryn Haw Prize in Art History: Lindsay K. Profenno ’15
  • Sprague-Belcher Award in Biology: Emily Ann Diamond ’15, Emily Boggs Brooks ’15
  • James Lewis Howe Award in Chemistry: Ashley Elizabeth Baker ’15
  • John R. McClenon Award (chemistry or biology/microbiology): Shannon Elizabeth Williams ’15
  • Economics Department Outstanding Senior Award: Amy Katherine Kvien ’15
  • Juliet Halliburton Davis Award (environmental science): Verena Mireille Joerger ’15
  • Delta Kappa Gamma Society International Outstanding Scholar Education Award: Victoria Lynn Eisenmann ’14, M.A. ’15
  • Excellence in Engineering Award: Kiera Michele Cavalleri ’15, Kathryn Diane Fanta ’15
  • Jean Taylor Meyer Memorial American Poets Prize: Ashley Elizabeth Baker ’15
  • Jean Besselievre Boley Prize (best short story): Tatyana LaShaun Martin ’16
  • English Essay Award (critical essay): Khirsten Haley Michelle Cook ’15
  • English Essay Award (critical essay, honorable mention): Anna Elise Bates ’17
  • English Essay Award (experimental/narrative nonfiction): Marcelle Anne Marie Coronel ’17
  • Lawrence G. Nelson Award (English): Olivia Ariel Muchmore ’15
  • Shakespeare Prize: Christy Gaulton ’15
  • L’alliance Francaise de Lynchburg: Sixtine Abrial ’15
  • Marcia Capron Award (French): Sarah Angelina Javed ’15
  • Pauline Roberts Otis Award (Junior Year in France): Lydia Kathryn Ethridge ’15
  • German Embassy Book Prize: Sixtine Abrial ’15, Stacey McKimmey Karmen ’15, Alyssa B. Sarmiento ’15
  • Anne Gary Pannell Taylor Award in History: Lydia Kathryn Ethridge ’15
  • Anne Gary Pannell Taylor Graduate Fellowship in History: Lydia Frances Lewis ’15
  • Mathematical Sciences Award: Jessica Megan Fortner ’15
  • Sweet Briar Fine Arts Scholarship: Kaitlin Ann Marie Dobson ’15
  • Helen K. Mull Graduate Fellowship in Psychology: Julia Elizabeth Moran ’15
  • W. Edward Overly Award (Spanish): Kasey Brooke Stewart ’15, Rebecca Elizabeth Mill ’15
  • Leigh Woolverton Prize for Excellence in the Visual Arts: Hollie Michelle Halford ’15
  • Jessica Steinbrenner Molloy Award: Annabel Metson Wallace ’15