Letter to the Community: May Update

Posted on June 12, 2020 by Meredith Woo

Dear Members of the Sweet Briar Community,

I will always remember this May for the hard work preparing our campus for the Fall opening – and also for reflections, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, on racial relations in our country and at Sweet Briar. In other ways, life on campus continued as usual – together, we made progress, and here are the small and not-so-small wins of the month.


I write from a happy place: deposits are at 148, just two shy of our fall goal of 150. We continue to fret about the 12 international students who have deposited, and hope we can accommodate them even if the travel restriction is not lifted by early August. Yield rate on presidential scholars are at 73 percent, up from 45 percent last year. Most encouraging is the deposited number for transfer students, up 33 percent, with more entering the pool late for the summer.

This summer is like nothing we have seen before: high school graduates are sitting on the fence amid uncertainty (an opportunity for us), but we know that the gloves are off for colleges at the ready to poach students by offering bigger financial aids. We remain vigilant to prevent “melt.”

We purchased 50,000 more names, including specialty equestrians, as well as students who are being homeschooled. It is an unusual strategy but one that makes sense for us, and we are doing this five months earlier than our main purchases last year. We have also launched our campaign for generating junior applications – a series of 20 communications in multiple channels to start converting “prospects” to “inquiries.” Admissions and athletics are also “tele-qualifying” nearly 7,000 inquiries for 2021.

Academics, Athletics, Student Life

Planning for the fall academic program continues, with a new twist, figuring out how best to accommodate faculty, staff, and students who are vulnerable with underlying conditions. A team of faculty has been working with Teresa Garrett, providing input into the logistical challenge of maintaining social distance in classrooms. With this input, and also input from the staff in residential life and dining services, our plan is beginning to take a coherent shape. The faculty senate has been asked to nominate a faculty to the final task force on COVID-19 preparation, which will have a representative from the staff (Rich Meyer) and the board (Mimi Fahs). This task force will finalize the plan, with support from Teresa Garrett, Luther Griffith, and Marcia Thom-Kaley. First-year advising started.

By mid-July, all first-year students will be registered for 12 credit hours minimum. This will facilitate financial aid processing, reduce confusion during orientation, and allow students to get acclimated to the academic program. We are also registering students for a mini-summer session. Ten courses were proposed (open to all), and an upper-level education course for teachers. By the beginning of next week, we will move ahead with the courses deemed economically viable. There will also be a mini “alumnae college,” conducted by six faculty offering one-hour virtual lectures from CORE classes, over two Saturday afternoons.

Athletes and riders comprise over 60 percent of new deposits, of which 58 came from equestrians. We hosted the athletics and riding virtual banquet at the end of May, celebrating Katie Balding (Rider of the Year); Ruth de Souza (Athlete of the Year); Lacey Tucker (Coach’s Award); and Emily Wandling (the Crysler Award). Four tennis players were named to the AllState teams from the Virginia Sports Information Director: Emily Wandling, Ruth de Souza, Kate Kotany, and Allison Wandling.

Finance, Operation and Auxiliaries

All auxiliary programs were cancelled for the summer, except for the Dennis Van der Meer tennis camp for adults. The adults will stay at the Elston Inn. Despite COVID-19, all operations in the college functioned without a glitch.

Construction is in its final stage for the greenhouse, but the lettuce has been transplanted from the smaller greenhouse and is thriving. The riding center’s main stables are in full renovation, and the improvement of the Bailey Room (off the riding arena) is underway, with funding in hand. We are reviewing multiple options for a new health clinic on campus. The clinic will require a series of surprisingly complex decisions, but we are moving ahead. The FY 2021 budget process is completed, with the final budget adjustments on expenses and executive compensation.

Alumnae Relations, Development, Communications

AR&D was able to secure the final gift for the Brewer Challenge. The total raised over the last four years is $1.5 million for our environmental science program. For the renovation of the stables and the Bailey room, $250,000 in anonymous gift was received. Media blitz on “A Room of Her Own,” centered on the safety of the Sweet Briar campus, featured in digital and print media, including the Chronicle of Higher Education, WSET, Roanoke Times, Lynchburg News and Advance. Washington Post is planning to publish an article on Sweet Briar’s preparation for the fall opening. I have placed an op-ed in Washington Examiner about Sweet Briar’s fall plan.

I end this note with the good news that we are just $635,000 short of the fundraising goal for FY 2020.

Meredith Woo
June 11, 2020