Jo Ellen Parker opened Sweet Briar’s 101st commencement on Saturday, May 15, ready to confer 155 undergraduate degrees and six Master of Arts in Teaching degrees. She left the stage at the conclusion of the ceremony an honorary member of the first class to graduate since she became president.
Senior class president Carlisle “Carlie” Adams made the announcement, and presented Parker with a class ring. Adams noted that Parker had faced challenges during her first year, but rose to meet them.
“I’ll say to my new classmates, I’m just a little bit verklempt,” Parker said in response, and noted that as the College’s 10th president she is numerically as well as emotionally linked to the Class of 2010.
Each year at commencement the Student Government Association presents excellence awards to a member of the staff and a member of the faculty. The awards are voted on by the student body and presented by a member of the graduating class.
SGA treasurer Hannah Hesser named co-curricular life’s Robyn Sanderson as the 2010 recipient of the Shirley P. Reid Excellence in Service Award. Sanderson, who recently was named to the new position of assistant dean for first-year and sophomore student programs, has served as director of student involvement and programs.
Hesser, citing a Chinese proverb that prescribes helping the next generation if you want a lifetime of happiness, said, “[Sanderson] has certainly helped my generation of Sweet Briar graduates.”
Jenna Wasylenko, chair of the SGA’s academic affairs committee, presented the Connie Burwell White Excellence in Teaching Award. As she began describing the recipient before naming him, many in the audience figured it out when she noted his figurative and literal “enormous presence” on campus.
By the time she got to, “He wears shorts even when there’s snow on the ground and he plays with sharks,” everyone knew that marine biologist John Morrissey was the winner — all 6 feet, 7 inches of him.
Debra Elkins ’93 delivered the commencement address, which struck an engineering theme appropriate to her background. She is a risk analysis expert serving as a section chief with U.S. Homeland Security. After receiving her bachelor’s from SBC in mathematical physics, she earned a master’s in math and a doctorate in industrial engineering.
Before issuing her charge to the soon-to-be graduates, Elkins noted that after today they will always be welcomed back as alumnae.
“I can guarantee it,” she said. “As a matter of fact, 15 minutes after I got here I received this very nice note — a parking ticket personally signed by Chief Neal. I’m sure campus police will welcome some of you graduating seniors similarly.”
Turning as serious as she knows how to be, Elkins advised the Class of 2010 that the liberal arts education they received at Sweet Briar has prepared them to engineer the future in everything from health care and education to fixing energy shortages and the environment to ensuring the nation’s security.
“You have the rights and privileges that go along with being a Sweet Briar graduate, but you also have a responsibility to use your education to help address these tough issues,” she said.
Elkins said each also has responsibility to herself. “Find whatever it is that you love doing and that you do really well, and go after that dream with all your passion and energy. Then you will have found not only a job, but an interesting, fulfilling career path, where you have lots of opportunities to give back to your community and broader society.”
Elkins comes from good stock and a proud Sweet Briar tradition: A sister and two cousins also are graduates and her late mother was professor emeriti and former chair of Sweet Briar’s math department, for whom the family established the Judith Molinar Elkins Prize. It recognizes outstanding achievements in math or science and is one of five all-College awards that are presented during commencement each year.
Elkins was able to present the award named for her mother to Laura Nicole Jett. Jett also earned the honorary title of Emily Watts McVea Scholar as the highest ranking member of her class, a distinction she shares with Elkins, who won it in 1993.
As is customary, dean of the College Jonathan Green called each candidate to the stage to receive her degree from President Parker. Other speakers included Rachel Flynn representing the board of directors and Jennifer Crossland ’86, president of the Alumnae Association.
Three guests also were acknowledged at commencement, President Emerita Betsy Muhlenfeld and her husband, Larry Wollan, and Margaret “Peggy” Jones Wyllie ’45, who with her late husband, Jessie Wyllie, recently endowed a fund to support the College’s engineering program.
Parker concluded the ceremony with a two-part charge to her classmates, which she drew from scripture.
” ‘Be not afraid,’ ” she said. “Take the world by storm, and do great things. … And the second part of my charge — my second scripture of the day — is simply, ‘Rejoice!’ When you succeed, when you learn something new, when you rise to the challenge, when you make a discovery, when you do something great, when you bounce back from a setback, take a minute and rejoice.
“Fear not, rejoice, and when you come back and visit us, tell us about all of your adventures.”