Admissions Blog: Mapping out your academic path

Posted on January 12, 2022 by Dana Poleski

Dean Teresa Garrett Dean Teresa Garrett

Dean Teresa Garrett shares her perspective on the benefit of a liberal arts education and taking ownership of your academic career and future in this Q&A.

Do students often have a clear purpose or outcome in mind for their education, or do they discover it as they go?

It’s both. As responsible educators, we serve both types of students. Not only do we serve the love of learning and learning for learning’s sake, which is very traditionally liberal arts, but we also serve the practical aspect of what a liberal arts education does, which is to provide a life that’s sustainable because one has a career.

We want to help them cultivate that love of learning and intrinsic motivation. We want to teach them how to apply their learning in different ways so that they can be hired, go to grad school or pursue a vocation or a passion that is going to lead them to the amazing life that they want.

What’s an easy way for students to think about structuring their coursework over their college career to achieve their goals?

Students need 120 credits to graduate. So, first, students start with our required Leadership Core curriculum, which is 30 credits. Then, major requirements hover between 30-35 and 48-50 credits for most of them. So, let’s say the chosen major requires 50 credits. Add to that the 30 leadership core credits and that leaves 40 credits for electives.

Now the question is: What are they doing with that space? How are they using it to make their major unique and special and serve the things that they’re interested in? What other field of study do they want to pursue? How will electives complement or expand their knowledge? What’s the strategy?

Or, sometimes I have conversations with students about the strategy for not taking extra classes. How can they spend their time in a non-structured activity that’s intrinsically motivated by them? How can they develop a side project that they can accomplish while here, getting help from faculty, staff and other people who mentor them? It’s not for credit or anything else but their own intrinsic motivation to practice, learn and hone their craft.

Describe the interdisciplinary studies major:

Interdisciplinary studies and self-designed majors are an option for students whose interests lie outside of our traditional majors and who have the abilities to work independently and be self-motivated agents of their own educational journey. After meeting the GPA requirement, they would work with faculty in multiple disciplines to construct a coherent course of study that aligns with their interests in an intellectual field that’s either already established or emerging.

What’s an example of customizing a course of study?

For example, one international student was interested in being a special education teacher when she returns to her home country. Since our education program is designed for traditional teacher licensure and wouldn’t transfer to her home country, we talked about how she can construct her own pedagogy, so that it serves her interests, which were centered around art therapy, education and psychology.

How is Sweet Briar’s approach to education designed to produce leaders?

Our curriculum and how we personally work with students is important because leaders don’t just come from a single field. Strong leaders are broadly educated. They can think about problems from different perspectives. They know how to be resourceful. They know how to ask for help when they need it. They also know how to consult experts. They have a nose for that because they’ve been exposed to different ways and angles of thinking. And, no matter what field they’re in, they’ll be well-served by having these other experiences. They’re going to bring a perspective to a work environment that is empathetic and elevates the space.

When I think about our curriculum and the opportunities that are there, that’s where I want to see Sweet Briar women taking ownership. When they graduate from here, they know that they had agency in their education, and they’ve developed into people who have the ability to lead from in front, from behind, from within and from the side.

Education is not just about teaching somebody to move widgets, it’s about teaching somebody to have a life, to be a human, to be a community member, to be a friend and to be a leader.