Opening Convocation sends a message of expansion, empathy, openness and truth

Posted on August 20, 2021 by Dana Poleski

President Meredith Woo welcomes new faculty President Meredith Woo welcomes new faculty

After last year’s Opening Convocation in the Dell to show COVID how easily we can handle the physical distancing requirements of the time, this year, we returned to the Murchison Lane Auditorium in the Babcock Fine Arts Center. While masks were up, we enjoyed being together back in Babcock, and especially enjoyed socializing with each other over ice cream after the event.

Prof. August Hardy, Annika Kuleba ’22 and Hannah Epstein ’22 Prof. August Hardy, Annika Kuleba ’22 and Hannah Epstein ’22

After the processional of faculty and members of the president’s cabinet, President Meredith Woo took to the podium to officially open Sweet Briar College’s 116th session. She extended a special welcome to more than 200 new students and to over a dozen new faculty and staff members.

Next, Hannah Epstein ’22, SGA president, took the stage to speak directly to each class. She challenged students to use this time to discover who they are, who they want to be and where they excel both in their personal and academic lives.

Hannah Epstein ’22 Hannah Epstein ’22

To the Class of 2025, Hannah extended a heartfelt welcome and expressed her excitement to get to know them and help them succeed.

To the Class of 2024, Hannah remarked how they showed remarkable resilience in their first year here, over which COVID cast a challenging physical and emotional shadow.

To the Class of 2023, Hannah energetically announced, “You are now upperclasswomen! Congratulations!”

To her Class of 2022, Hannah paused and full of emotion, said, “Three years ago today, we got our daisies.” A chorus of “awww” form her classmates echoed through the auditorium as eyes welled with tears of happy memories.

Next, President Woo recognized our new Dean of Student Life Kerry Greenstein and the expertise and experience he brings. Through his leadership and the stellar student life team, the new student orientation week that culminated with Opening Convocation was a grand success.

Dean Teresa Garrett Dean Teresa Garrett

Dean of the College Teresa Garrett took the podium for the convocation address. “Welcome home, welcome back,” she began. “Welcome to your journey of growing and developing into more amazing women.” She then turned her focus to the ideas of contraction and expansion in life, in the world and, to to put it in perspective, the universe.

“Recently, we have lived a contracted life — traveling less, interacting less — but now some restrictions are relieved,” Dean Garrett continues. “Where can we expand? Where must we restrain? We are surrounded by expansion and live in a universe that is expanding. It can be messy, and we must be open to change.”

Dean Garrett’s message struck a chord and set the stage for how to approach one’s college years. “Sweet Briar is a place where we have the opportunity to grow, change and expand our lives. Expand your voice. We all have something to say. Just like we cultivate our land, be a cultivator of your voice. Where and how will you expand your voice? Your skills? Do something you haven’t done before. You don’t have to be an expert at it. I tried surfing and am OK at being moderately competent because, above all, I enjoyed the time with my family and being in nature. Pursue adventures that make your heart race and give you peace and calm. Where can you be more bold and adventurous?”

Following Dean Garrett’s energizing comments on expansions (with, of course, her trademark dash of humor), she turned her focus inward toward the importance of empathy, listening, being open to change and developing emotional confidence. “There are no right answers,” she firmly states. “How are people impacted by your decisions? How do we support others with kindness? Expand your capacity for forgiveness. Society is struggling with this right now, and we must hold each other accountable. The desire to create accountability is here, but it is messy. We need to practice the skills of listening, support and accountability. Know better, do better. We need to try. Become the Sweet Briar women I know you can be.”

President Meredith Woo President Meredith Woo

President Woo retuned to the podium to deliver her charge for the academic year. She began by bringing the current events of the world to the Babcock stage, showing how we, as humanity, are touched and affected by places and cultures both near and far. She remarked on the situation in Afghanistan and how it is right next to us. “You might know someone who has been touched by the war. This has affected the entire world. Accusations will fly for decades to come, and they will be based on so little facts. Afghanistan is hard to understand, and more often than not, debate is based on ignorance and politics,” she says.

Then, her charge seamlessly shifted to navigating differences in culture, opinion and ways of life. “America has always had its culture wars. Yet, there is something irrational happening now, unlike the clearer purpose of the Civil War and civil rights movement. Our current struggle isn’t about rights or laws, it’s about culture, interpretation, values and ways of life. It tends to be visceral and existential, meaning ‘If I’m right, you’re wrong, and my way of life is threatened.’ This type of war will rage everywhere from dorm rooms to college campuses to communities and in the media.”

President Woo concludes her charge with how to take action. “Democracy is an agreement that we will not kill each other through differences. We will talk, walk and think our way through cultural and political differences.”

“Before you hold on to your cultural comfort level. Always be beholden to truth,” President Woo concludes. “Your obligation is to observe facts through education and evidence. History teaches, informs, delights and, often, disappoints us. Always be ready to learn. Be a stellar example of what it means to be democratic citizens.”