Letter to the Community: October Update

Posted on January 16, 2020 by Meredith Woo

October, 2019

Dear members of the Sweet Briar community,

The Board of Directors of Sweet Briar College met on campus two weeks ago, bookended by two other significant events — Founders’ Day and Families’ Weekend. This past weekend, we hosted the first Fall Open House, welcoming 28 prospective students and their families. Our college community extended a warm welcome, and through it, the first inkling that the prospective students will have that our College may become their home.

Founders’ Day dawned with a brief memorial at the Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Grounds. “Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off,” reads Isaiah (56:5). The Reverend Jasper “Eddie” Fletcher, a member of the sprawling clan which has worked at Sweet Briar for generations, reflected that Sweet Briar, in choosing to persist for perpetuity, has also protected the integrity of his lineage. He is an important supporter of the College in so many ways and I am grateful.

There were other lineages being celebrated. Dr. Anna “Chips” Chao Pai ’57 was on campus to discuss her recently published autobiography. She is a granddaughter through her mother’s side to Marshall Zhang Tsolin (1873-1928), a military “warlord” who unified Manchuria and ruled it as his private domain — and through her father’s side, granddaughter to Viceroy of Manchuria, Zhao Ershun, who was the highest-ranking civil servant in Manchuria during the Qing dynasty. Her uncle, Zhang Xueling, who had succeeded his father, Marshall Zhang Tsolin, after the latter’s assassination by the Japanese, was famously a man who put a gun to the head of Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese ruling party, to force him to form a united front with the communist force of Mao Tse-tung. It was senseless for the Chinese to fight each other, when the enemy was the Japanese. Known as the Xian Incident of 1936, it changed the course of Chinese history, even as it earned him more than 50 years of house arrest. Her autobiography is also a highly personal one for a lineage so public and significant, about her journey from the palatial dwellings in Beijing to middle class homes in different cities in America — until she found her home at Sweet Briar. It is also about her mother, who unlike her daughter, could never find her home in America, struggling as she did with a foreign tongue that refused to come to her.

In between the events presided over by Eddie Fletcher and Anna “Chips” Pai, there were visits by U.S. Senator for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Mark Warner, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Ostensibly on campus for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting of the 27,000 square-foot greenhouse, the importance of Sweet Briar’s new vision was not lost on them. Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private industry. Agriculture and forestry together have an economic impact of $91 billion. When the employment and value-added impact of agriculture and forestry are considered together, they make up 10% of the commonwealth’s total gross domestic product. And here is an important mega-trend to note: 36% of Virginia’s primary farm operators are female, and with the generation change taking place, the upward swing continues unabated.

Secretary Perdue noted that the kind of regenerative and sustainable farming being undertaken at Sweet Briar is one that also brings together all aspects of learning, including in the liberal arts: biology, botany, environment, chemistry, economics, arts, photography, entrepreneurship, marketing, public policy, as well as environmental and agricultural engineering. We are not a land-grant university but a small liberal arts college — and therein lies the opportunity to integrate the liberal arts around the land, environment and humanity’s effort to honor it and make it productive.

Families’ Weekend was fun-filled: starting with a reception at Sweet Briar House, the families were treated to the cardboard boat regatta, Oktoberfest, B.F.A. concert, yoga at the boathouse and FAC, 18 miles of trails on campus, gallery and museum tours, and a faculty recital. Along the way, there were triumphs: our field hockey team trounced Southern Virginia, and in a judged competition at our riding center, our NCEA (that is the equivalent of NCAA Division I for the equestrian sport) team swept the flat event by winning all five points. With the first full win of our season under our belt, we are looking forward to a great year.

The fall meeting of the Board of Directors was focused on improving the revenue stream by recruiting and retaining more students. This has been a difficult year for independent colleges. The challenges range from enrollment increases at public universities that are generously subsidized, the “Great Enrollment Crash” from fertility decline, fear of an impending recession that is likely underway by 2021, to the high school seniors increasingly choosing the option of education that is anytime, anywhere, short-term and quick credentialing, rather than the traditional four-year college.

In the face of these challenges, the College needs to have all hands on deck to increase enrollment. To that end, I discussed with the board three plans that are layered on top of the traditional method deployed for admissions.

One is more and better campus visits. You know the familiar tale — that prospective students know from the moment of entering Sweet Briar’s gates and experiencing its powerful sense of community that this is the college for them. Now thanks to the generous support of an alumna, the College has launched a fly-in program that invites prospective students to Sweet Briar as our guests, covering their costs and creating a personalized agenda for their visits. The fly-in “tickets” are distributed by our admissions counselors and alumnae ambassadors at college fairs, visits to high schools and recruiting events. They are also mailed to individual students and high school counselors, as well as our alumnae with the request that they pass along the ticket to a prospective student. The ticket holder then contacts the admissions office to arrange her visit. The flight number of the ticket is coded to indicate how she received it. If you have received the pink-and-green fly-in tickets in your mail, and if you know a brilliant student or more who fit our profile, please fly her in — with or without you — and it’s all on us.

Another plan is the use of recruitment “pipelines,” focusing on targeted recruitment that is championed by faculty or staff or students — and coordinated with the admissions office. There are a dozen such pipelines but some of the lowest-hanging fruits are the pipelines for equestrians, STEM, international and Girl Scouts.

Finally, the above two plans — fly-in and pipelines — are being implemented by close to 100 alumnae ambassadors who will supplement the handful of admissions counselors we have. During the month of September, the alumnae ambassadors attended at least 45 college fairs across 16 states, and plan to attend at least 40 more college fairs in October. While the alumnae ambassadors’ program is not new, our intent is to revise it to develop a meaningful baseline that identifies where our alumnae, especially those who teach in high schools, may be located and working effectively with them. To that end, we hired a new admissions ambassador manager, Heather Ewing from Atlanta, and she has been working tirelessly to manage the process. Thank you, Heather.

Sweet Briar is an extraordinary community of dedicated women, and I am so proud to be part of it, as you are. Together, as one Sweet Briar, we are building an exceptional institution.


Meredith Woo