The Power of Multidimensional Liberal Arts

Posted on December 09, 2021 by Dana Poleski

As we all know, academic trends and the paths to a successful career can ebb and flow with the times and there is never only one correct way. Some of us follow a straight and narrow path to success and adulthood. Others cast their net wide and draw on a variety of experiences to find their path. Either way, it would be difficult to deny the importance of having a solid understanding of the world underscored by personal experience.

That is the heart of the liberal arts, especially at a college where women are empowered to take the lead, discover who they are and manifest who they want to become. At Sweet Briar, just like the bees in the Brown Family Apiary who benefit from every different wildflower in the meadow, our students combine the arts with the sciences, engineering with sustainability, painting with biology, chemistry with creative writing, team sports with one-woman shows and so much more.

While some students may elect to design their own major, that isn’t the only way Sweet Briar students create their own experience. Nearly every student is involved in multiple areas of academic study and co-curricular interests. Regardless of which path a student chooses, there is a delicate balance between spreading out and focusing in.

Dean Teresa Garrett

Dean Teresa Garrett is acutely tuned in to the need for balance, direction and cohesion when studying in a cross-disciplinary program. “Self-designing a major is for students whose interests lie outside of our traditional majors and who have the ability to work independently, be self-motivated and be agents of their own educational journey,” she tells us. “Such students work with faculty in multiple disciplines to construct a coherent course of study that aligns with their interests and is often centered on an emerging intellectual field.”

Teresa notes that as responsible educators, faculty at the College support love of learning and learning for learning’s sake, but they must also serve the practical aspects of the liberal arts: giving students a life that’s sustainable because they’re employed. “We want to cultivate the intrinsic motivation to learn and show them how to apply their learning in all aspects of their life,” says Teresa.

One way for students to think about incorporating other disciplines into their studies is to evaluate how they spend their time once they’ve reached the credits needed for their major or minor. “Typically, a student has 30-40 credits that are theirs to elect,” says Teresa. “So, what is she doing to fill that space? How will that space make her major unique and special and serve the things she is interested in? Or, what other field of study does she want to pursue to compliment or expand her knowledge? What’s the strategy?”

Employers notice when students develop accomplishments beyond their traditional academic degree, something Teresa knows well. “Strong leaders are broadly educated. They can think about problems from different perspectives. They know how to find resources and ask for help when they need it, and they know when to consult experts,” she says.

“Students will be well-served by being able to demonstrate that they willingly take on things without being asked. These are all traits of leaders that the world and workplace need: those who can lead with empathy and understanding from the front, the back or the side.”

Another key aspect of Sweet Briar’s academic program? Choice. Lack of choice is a kind of oppression, Teresa observes. All of us need to learn to balance the responsibilities of life with our freedom of choice and she wants students to learn that they have control over their lives. “We’re not here just to teach someone to move widgets or differentiate an equation. Our program is about teaching someone to have a life, to be a human, a community member, a leader. That’s truly what we are doing here at Sweet Briar.”

Clearly, it is not uncommon for Sweet Briar women to be involved in several areas of study and activities—both at Sweet Briar and after. In talking to our students, we dis- covered some obvious themes about how each area of focus builds on and benefits others and how our students feel prepared to thrive upon graduation.

Bijou Barry

Bijou Barry ’23 might be one of the busiest students on campus. She is studying economics, environmental science, philosophy and communications. Her extracurricular activities are just as varied. She is president of the Black Student Alliance; an NCAA Division III golf player; a member of the student athletes advisory committee; a student advisor for the Center of Human and Environmental Sustainability; a student board member for the creative writing program and the student success committee; a member of both President Woo’s working group and the SGA’s committee  on diversity, equity and inclusion; a residential advisor; and a writing tutor.

“In everything that I’m doing here at Sweet Briar, I want to facilitate spaces of purpose,” Bijou tells us. She’s a proponent of intersectional learning and experiences and wants to cultivate spaces where people feel like they belong, some- thing she feels she can do at Sweet Briar. “Something I love about Sweet Briar is regardless of what you’re doing, there is always an opportunity to learn something different. I came here not really knowing what I would end up doing or even what I was really interested in. That is what is profound. I’m always on this unique journey without knowing exactly what it will look like in the future. Sweet Briar offered a new form of empowerment where your differences and diverse interests are illuminated. You get to really shine in who you are.”

She’s grateful for the opportunity to expand thinking about solving problems beyond the ideas of a one-way solution or approach, something that is possible because of the liberal arts environment at Sweet Briar. “By coming into a liberal arts environment, you learn that the best way to live is intersectional and understanding that there is more,” Bijou observes. “Our job is to look for the nuances, the multiplicities, the diversity that exists in everyone. Collective engagement is crucial. An enriching life calls for many different ideas, thoughts, disciplines and studies. When we look at the issues that need to be solved and who needs to be involved, we see that everything is connected.”

Sydney Campbell

Recent graduate Sydney Campbell ’21 also enjoyed the wide variety of experiences available to her at Sweet Briar. A math major with a focus on statistics and plans to attend grad school, she originally started out with an interest in engineering and was a Wyllie Scholar as a first-year. But, because of the freedom of choice afforded students at Sweet Briar, she explored her options and found that math, specifically statistics, was what she really wanted to pursue. Like Bijou, Sydney was involved in several extracurricular activities. She was the Inter-Club Council president, the student events committee co-chair, the Chung Mung president, a member of the Earphones, a member of the Book Shop committee and a lacrosse player.

“Through all my different leadership positions, I’ve realized so much about myself and how to better communicate with others,” Sydney says. “As a math and science person, my experiences at Sweet Briar have taught me how language can be used in different settings and with different groups of people.”

Sydney also knows first-hand that learning doesn’t always have to be tied directly to a desired outcome. Exploring new things just for fun allows us to grow in unexpected ways. “One of the cool things about Sweet Briar is I was able to take voice lessons just for fun,” she tells us. “I have always been interested in music, but most of my time was spent fulfilling my math requirements. I’ve seen friends at bigger schools who have to take what they can get, and that’s all they get. But here, everybody has the opportunity to take classes in any area.”

With all of her involvement in clubs and events, Sydney has also seen how everyone has come together, especially after the pandemic. The spirit of cross-disciplinary academics was also present in student life as clubs hosted joint events and supported each other. Being a fan of data and statistics, Sydney pointed out how the number of events and student participation really skyrocketed.

Angel Lindberg ’21

Rachel Logan ’21

Hannah Marron ’21

Angel Lindberg, Rachel Logan and Hannah Marron

This same cross-disciplinary interest can be clearly seen in another group: our engineers. It is common to see them in studio art classes at the Art Barn, working on sets and lights backstage in the theatre and, for one particular trio, building a hydroponics system in the greenhouse.

Three Class of 2021 engineering majors—Angel Lindberg, Rachel Logan and Hannah Marron—created a hydroponics system for the greenhouse as their capstone project. “We were given the freedom to determine the best design and implementation,” says Angel, “and we decided to use the Nutrient Film Technique, which is a design that uses horizontal PVC pipes with a shallow stream of nutrient-rich water for the plants,” she explains. “We completed the design and built a 10-foot long by 8-foot tall A-frame that holds 80 plants at one time.”

The three engineers shared another academic interest: They all minored in mathematics. However, their extracurricular activities varied slightly. Angel was treasurer for the Student Government Association. Rachel was vice president of her class and an equestrian. Hannah was on the cross-country team and was an equestrian. And now, because of their capstone project, they had another shared learning experience.

Before the pandemic, capstone projects typically involved working with community partners. Angel points out how exciting it was to work on a project that’s on campus. “When senior projects happen off campus, you often don’t see the final project in routine use, fulfilling its purpose,” she notes. “But with the hydroponics system in the greenhouse, we were right here to see the results of our work on a daily basis. And hopefully, it can be used for several years. It would be fun returning to campus as alumnae and seeing it still in action.”

Sweet Briar’s engineering program is multidisciplinary both within itself and through joint projects with other academic areas. “I love this aspect of our program,” shares Hannah. “Not only did we learn mechanical, electrical and systems engineering, with our senior capstone project, we learned about bioscience and agriculture.” The trio worked closely with Professor Lisa Powell throughout the hydroponics project. Hannah shares how fun it was to learn about plants through their research and through “the wisdom imparted by Professor Powell.” For Rachel, she particularly enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to optimize the system for plants.

The benefit of studying all three areas of engineering is evident in our current students as well as alumnae working in the field. “A lot of engineers pick their niche and follow that one track,” Rachel observes. “But then, they have limited experience in the other areas. Since our program is multidisciplinary, it is easier to land the job you want because you are well prepared. Plus, it’s a unique perspective on engineering to not only know the mechanical and electrical side but to know how they work together, which is a huge benefit.”

With Sweet Briar’s focus on multidisciplinary education, students’ career opportunities and futures are wide open. Angel points out how common it is that when you begin working in the field, you find yourself using more than one type of engineering. She shares how during a manufacturing engineering internship in 2020, she ended up working on electrical projects, which was not what she anticipated she’d be doing.

“The multidisciplinary approach makes us excellent candidates for anything,” says Rachel. “I had an internship working as an assistant director of public works for a local government, and I found that I was able to draw on what I’d learned across various areas of study to successfully take on that leadership role.”

The ability to pursue diverse interests is supported by the leadership core curriculum, which in itself, is designed to blend multiple areas within each course. “The structure of the leadership core allowed me time to explore classes outside my major,” Hannah says with a big smile. “I took an art class, which was a great experience. It’s fun to be able to branch out.”

Rachel hones in on a core benefit of the liberal arts. “I found that different subjects required a completely different mindset, such as engineering versus art versus philosophy. It’s an interesting challenge that will benefit me throughout life.”

Reesa Artz

Adapting to different mindsets across disciplines has an equally important counterpart: exploring the similarities. For Reesa Artz ’22, her psychology major and dance minor are a perfect blend. “Dance relates to the body and psychology studies the mind,” she states. “For me, they go hand-in- hand.”

But her academic pursuits are only the beginning. The number of ways in which she’s involved on campus is impressive, and yet, you can clearly see the common thread of her interest in leadership, creative expression and caring for the community. Reesa is the president of the Campus Events Organization and especially enjoys bringing different interest groups together. She is the vice chair of the Admissions Ambassadors and next year will be the chair. She is an orientation leader; a member of the Founders’ Day dance and lectures and events committees; the Sweet Tones treasurer; the Taps n Toes vice president; the QV secretary; and a member of Delight Ministries, Sweet Dancers and Sweet PEAs.

Dance has been a major part of Reesa’s life since the age of two, and being able to continue dancing while studying psychology has provided her the perfect balance. “Having dance as a minor shows you can take educational classes that might not directly relate to your career,” she shares. “You’ll  be able to use those experiences as a positive influence on whatever you choose to do in life. Even if there’s not a direct link, there’s always a way to bring it in. For instance, dance has taught me dedication, persistence and self-confidence.” As an admissions ambassador and orientation leader, Reesa encourages new students to take classes outside of their major. “Do what you love,” she says. “Sweet Briar will set you up to pursue your interests whether it’s starting your career or continuing on to grad school.”

While pursuing what you love, it is also important to get outside of your comfort zone, and college is a great opportunity to discover unique aspects of yourself. “Combining a supportive and encouraging environment like Sweet Briar with a personal desire to push yourself to discover new things creates this opportunity,” she observes. “Every experience you have will help you in life.”

Outside of academics, clubs and committees, Reesa points out how friend groups can be diverse, naturally extending beyond your major and lasting a lifetime. Not only does Sweet Briar’s unique liberal arts curriculum encourage this range of experiences and friendships, but it’s the resourceful campus and tight-knit community that form the core.

Siena Annable

Encouraging diversity, supporting the community and helping others also resonates strongly with Siena Annable ’22, an English major in the secondary education program who plans to continue with the Master of Arts in teaching. She is an education tutor with the Academic Resource Center, a Sweet PEAs peer educational health advocate and a member of the diversity, equity and inclusion committee, which has been her main focus.

Siena has experienced how classes at Sweet Briar go beyond their primary educational focus. “I’m taking a land- scape painting class which is teaching me a great deal about the surrounding area, and archeology taught me about art, history and culture,” reflects Siena. “The Economics of Wine class gave me the opportunity to bring in alumna DeDe Conley ’72 as a guest expert, and I interviewed her for a project. The feminist philosophy class was fascinating, as well. All of these classes have been a valuable complement to my education and English studies.”

This type of variety in classes helps students acquire a range of skills to observe, analyze, problem solve and think critically. They have more options for solutions and can look with different perspectives at whatever is in front of them. The benefit of multidisciplinary studies directly impacted Siena one day when she visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and realized how much she knew about what she was seeing. “The archeology class opened me up to having entirely new conversations that I confidently started up with other museum visitors. I hadn’t realized just how much I would bring into the world with me, especially from a course that wasn’t in my major.”

Like so many others, Siena sees Sweet Briar as a place where you can feel comfortable and free to explore many areas. She also sees how the core curriculum is very good at combining more than one content area and is a great way to find out what areas interest you.

“At Sweet Briar, when you get involved in one thing, so many more doors open,” says Siena. “The College is eager to give opportunities to those who show an interest. It provides the environment for you to succeed as long as you are willing to take those risks, to join in and push yourself to grow.”

Jackie Vari

For Jackie Vari ’22, growth and development apply both to her experiences and to the physical growth of the plants and gardens that she loves. Jackie is a biology major with a love of art who’s in the arts management program. “My biggest passion is the science behind plants and gardening, but because I’m an artistic person, I’m using Sweet Briar as my bridge to connect the two,” she shares.

Jackie further combines her interests in biology, sustainability and art through her extracurricular activities. She has been a part of the hybrid music ensemble Daisy’s Harp, is the director of club programming for the Inter-Club Council and is involved with the beekeeping and sustainability clubs. But, she didn’t stop there. Jackie noticed how much students enjoyed crafting activities and the community bonding experience that naturally came with it. So she used her knowledge in art, sewing and crafting to launch a new club called The Crafty Vixen. Plus, since sustainability is something she’s always been interested in, she incorporated that principle into the club and crafting activities.

Combining art and biology supports Jackie’s goal of working in a botanical garden, which, for her, is the ultimate combination of both areas. Before college, Jackie had been focused on art and wanting to study psychology, but “coming to Sweet Briar opened me back up to the plant world,” she recalls. “That was the turning point for me.”

Like many other students, Jackie appreciates the differences and similarities between science and art. “In biology, you need to be a creative thinker, observe the natural world and ask questions. And to me, art is the expression of that process,” she shares. “I see reflections in them.” Jackie also astutely points out how beneficial it is to be both a right and left-brain thinker. “It’s good to avoid the binaries. It helps you be flexible when problem solving.”

Each of these student’s experiences share common threads that demonstrate the power of a multidimensional person in our diverse and interconnected world. Developing a full range of skills, characteristics and values sits at the heart of Sweet Briar’s mission to prepare the next generation of women leaders. The end goal is not to be successful in one area, but to thrive in all areas of life.

This article was first published in the spring 2021 issue of Sweet Briar Magazine.