Letter to the Community – August Update

Posted on September 08, 2020 by Meredith Woo

Labor Day marks the end of summer and return of students to school. However, many of the colleges and universities in Virginia are closing no sooner than they open: JMU is a case among larger universities and Roanoke College among smaller ones. Others have yet to start classes, like the University of Virginia. But as you know, with our adjusted calendar, Sweet Briar is already into the fifth week of classes. We are one third of the way through the semester, with our eyes fixed on the finish line of November 20.

Much of our success thus far owes to our students. They have internalized the COVID-19 protocols, and abided by the compact they signed as members of the community. Every time I venture out of Fletcher, I see our students walking on campus with their facial coverings on. They are no less scrupulous in classrooms, residence halls, and in Prothro. Student leaders have assumed mentorship, guiding others on safety protocols. Clubs and organizations are accomplishing their social goals without physically being together. I also want to thank all of you, the faculty and staff. You, too, are diligently following COVOD protocols, being mindful, and doing all that you can to keep our community safe and well. I appreciate your efforts so much.


Recruiting the next class of Sweet Briar students is off to a good start. We have 99 submitted applications, up from 49 at this point last year. Our target for fall 2021 deposits is 180 new students, which breaks down to 160 first-years students and 20 transfers. To reach this goal, we will need 1,066 submitted applications from first-years and 80 from transfers. From another angle this means we will need 821 admitted first-year students and 41 admitted transfers. Our enrollment goal is ambitious, but doable.

Admissions is a college-wide effort. I attend, like so many staff and faculty, the weekly Tuesday meeting where everyone involved with recruiting new students compare notes and reports on activity. 

With athletic competitions postponed till spring, many of the coaches have been reassigned to Admissions. They are actively reaching out to students through phone and email and often shepherding prospective students who visit the campus. The faculty continue to host virtual classroom events for prospectives, with the last three sessions netting some 27 attendees. Dean Garrett is planning a virtual session for the prospective students on our pre-med advising program. 

A big shout out to Professor Lisa Powell who gave a terrific tour of the greenhouse to the entire admissions team and also provided them with an at-a-glance sheet full of important information about it. Meanwhile, Alumnae Relations & Development (AR & D) is hard at work to outdo its own superlative record of recruiting the “legacies.” There is no greater validation of our work than when our alumnae send their own daughters here. The number of legacies last year was up nearly 100 percent, and we hope to do even better.

Academics, Athletics, Student Life

The official student census date is September 15, at which point our reportable first-year retention number will be set, but I can tell you now that we have 362 students. The good news is our numbers are slowly growing, and we hope that some international and domestic students who deferred their admission will be joining us later in the year. 

Here are some quick facts about our talented and diverse first-year class: they hail come from 27 states and eight other countries; forty percent of them are Presidential Scholars (with an average high school GPA of 3.96); 34.6 percent are first-generation college students; 41.5 percent are Pell grant-eligible; 4 percent are legacies; and 68.5 percent are White, 11.5 percent are African American, 6.2 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 2.3 percent are Multiracial, 1.5 percent are Asian, and 3.1 percent did not specify their race/ethnicity. 

Here is for a big sigh of relief: our compliance report to our accrediting body, the Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), consisting of 159 pages of prose containing 1,060 hyperlinks to various documents, is completed. We lost count of the pages of supporting documents but they are in the thousands. They were Federal Expressed to Atlanta over the weekend. 

This major milestone in the long march to successful completion of the re-accreditation process will be followed by a meeting on November 3-5 of the SACSCOC “off-site” committee, consisting of leaders from peer institutions. Soon afterwards we will hear from them, and we will be given until February 8th to respond to their findings, and to submit our Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). The latter is a report on one important area of the College that we have prioritized – in our case it is the Leadership Core – to illustrate how thoughtful, disciplined, and methodical we are in implementing our priority. 

On April 5-8, the “on-site” committee, again comprising of peer leaders, will visit our campus to make sure everything checks out. If there are findings – and there will always be findings – we will respond by September 5. The final review by the SACSCOC board will take place December 4-7, 2021. 

I want to thank Teresa Garrett and Kim Sinha, Director of Institutional Effectiveness, and everyone that has worked so hard to complete the compliance report. 

Finance, Operations & Auxiliaries

The work of the business office has its unbreakable cycle. At this time, the office is occupied with the fall term billing. It has also welcomed new students to the financial process. The annual audit preparation is well underway and on track. 

During August, the health clinic started operations in its temporary location. With a steady student flow to the clinic, we were able to ramp up the hours. The construction of the clinic in the permanent location is nearly finished, and we are awaiting equipment and furnishings which have delayed due to supply chain issues. We expect them later in the month, and we should be able to open the new clinic for business at the beginning of October. 

That particular timing also applies for the construction of the stables and the Bailey Room at the Riding Center. They should be substantially completed by the end of September.

The vineyards are in terrific shape. Even with all the rains and the grass that seems to be in overdrive, the grounds crew has worked miracles, keeping the vines robust, and well poised for harvest next year. The crew has also planted a rose shrub before every row in the vineyard as you walk toward the green barn – that’s nearly two hundred shrubs. Roses are “indicator plants” for the vines, and it is said that they will wilt or develop mildew before the vines do. Whether it is true or not, the roses will explode in color next spring and set our campus in heavenly blaze through the fall. 

COVID-19 is a lot of work. We added a second shift to housekeeping. We are now cleaning the entire campus twice a day, seven days a week. The housekeeping staff is working literally around the clock, no break. They are resilient and stoic – and absolutely indispensable for our effort to manage the national virus outbreak. They are our “frontline” workers, and we are all deeply grateful to them. 

The flow in Prothro, which is based on physical distancing of students in the serving and dining areas, is working well – it is intelligently conceived. With students back on campus, the bookshop is open for physical visitors. We now have a whole section just for PPE, and this year’s honey harvest is available in limited quantities. 

The Wailes Conference Center has shifted entirely to supporting classes that enable social distancing. The Elston Inn reserves limited number of rooms for college-related guests. The remainder is being reserved for quarantine if needed.

Campus safety checks in all students, guests of the college and contractors through our Envoy system. The process includes temperature checks. Soon we will be expanding the temperature checks to include faculty and staff when they enter campus.

Information technology has been busy training faculty on the use of enhanced technology to facilitate teaching that is both in person and remote for students even if they are quarantined or isolated. 

Alumnae Relations, Development, Communications

The final count on Sweet Work Weeks that ended in the first week of August is that we had 44 alumnae and family members participating in spite of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, contributing over 1,000 hours. 

The Alumnae Relations arm of AR & D has reached out to 22 alumnae clubs throughout the country and briefed them on the final results of the FY2020 budget, my priorities for the 2020-2021 academic year, the makeup of the 2024 incoming class – and the progress taking place in the College, including the vineyard, greenhouse, apiaries, and the construction of the stables and the medical clinic.

The advancement arm, meanwhile, launched another year of Sweet Briar Fund. We have already raised $1.8 million dollars toward our $5.5 million goal, but we are not resting: activities to raise restricted monies for historic preservation, agricultural enterprises, riding facilities, and COVID-related expenses, are in high-gear. 

Communications continues to provide COVID-19 updates to the community and wider public, and drives “scenario planning,” also related to COVID-19. It is also engaged in its usual activities, such as preparing admissions materials and stories about the College for the website and regional and national media.

That is all for now. Happy Labor Day!
Meredith Woo