114th commencement celebrates the Class of 2023

Sweet Briar College celebrates 114th Commencement (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).
Sweet Briar College celebrates 114th Commencement (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).
Sweet Briar College celebrates 114th Commencement (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).

Fortunately for those in attendance, the rain never fell as Sweet Briar College held its 114th Commencement on May 13, 2023.

Posted on May 16, 2023 by Sandra Huffman

Despite the looming prospect of a thunderstorm on Saturday May 13, Sweet Briar College held its 114th Commencement for the Class of 2023 outdoors on the Quad where family, friends, faculty and staff gathered to celebrate their achievements. The changeable weather seemed an apt metaphor for the challenges faced and surmounted by these resilient graduates, who in their four years at Sweet Briar experienced college life before, during and in the aftermath of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Seniors robed and ready for Commencement (photo by Cassie Foster Evans). Seniors robed and ready for Commencement (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).

Awards Ceremony

Official graduation events began on Friday in Murchison Lane Auditorium when the College held an awards ceremony to recognize the Class of 2023’s academic success. Dean Teresa Garrett presided over the event which she described as a way to honor the “amazing, smart and talented members of this class.”

Participants in the arts management and equine studies programs received their certificates, followed by the presentation of the College’s individual and perpetual awards. Recognition was also given to members of the Dean’s List and multiple honor societies. This year, Phi Beta Kappa inducted five members of the Class of 2023: Ruth Hope Druley, Ingrid Alexandra Kalwitz Blanco, Katica Kotany, Kaitlyn Grace Murray and Drew Carmen Wood.


The 2023 individual and perpetual award recipients are:

  • The Alpha Lambda Delta Award: Ruth Borges Bispo De Souza
  • The Award for Excellence in Studio Art: Dahbia Sarah Bensaada
  • The Crysler Award: Ruth Borges Bispo De Souza
  • The Penelope Lane Czarra Award: Ingrid Alexandra Kalwitz Blanco
  • The Juliet Halliburton Davis Environmental Science Award: Katica Kotany
  • The Juliet Halliburton Davis Environmental Studies Award: Lily Beth Terwilliger
  • The Delta Kappa Gamma International Society for Key Women Educators Virginia Scholars Award: Caroline Marie Lewis
  • The Economics Department Outstanding Senior Award: Bijou Cheengelo-Minatta Barry
  • The Judith Molinar Elkins Prize: Allison Renae Wandling
  • The Excellence in Engineering Award: Ruth Borges Bispo De Souza and Allison Renae Wandling
  • The Engineering Outreach Award: Hina Ahmad Saleem
  • The Connie M. Guion Award: Rabina Kaur
  • The Kathryn Haw Prize in Art History: Alexandra Gabrielle Marston and Sita Lakshmi Moses
  • The James Lewis Howe Award in Chemistry: Katica Kotany
  • The Magruder Excellence in Dance Award: Kaia Audrey Rokke
  • The Emily Watts McVea Scholar: Ruth Hope Druley
  • The Poetry Prize: Avery Wallis Lewis
  • The Jessica Steinbrenner Molloy Award in Theatre Arts: Cassandra Kay Munford
  • The Presidential Medalist: Sita Lakshmi Moses
  • The Sprague-Belcher Award in Biology: Lauria Anne McShane
  • The Anne Gary Pannell Taylor Award in History: Ruth Hope Druley


Baccalaureate Members of the Class of 2023 (photo by Cassie Foster Evans). Members of the Class of 2023 (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).

Following the awards ceremony, members of the College community gathered in Mills Chapel to share thoughts and memories of Sweet Briar and encouragement for the graduating class during the annual baccalaureate ceremony, as the graduates began saying farewell to their beautiful college campus, the place they called home for the last four years.

Music welcomed the students, family members, faculty and staff to the ceremony as Dr. Joshua Harris, associate professor of music, performed a piano prelude that included selections by Johann Sebastian Bach and the ever popular “Pomp and Circumstance,” the latter performed as students processed into the chapel.

College Chaplain Lindsey Moser began her invocation with a nod to the campus and how students over the years walk the “well-worn path from building to building.” She quoted St Thomas Aquinas who in “A Student’s Prayer,” asked God to guide the beginning of his work, direct its progress and bring it to a successful completion.

Class president, Brianna Rabassa ’23, welcomed the class and explained how baccalaureate was a time to share memories that express what Sweet Briar means to the graduating class as a family.

In the first reflection, Erin Nelson ’23 shared that before visiting Sweet Briar, she doubted anywhere could make her feel like she was home, especially after just one visit. This campus and the people she met here proved her wrong. The minute she visited Sweet Briar’s campus, she “was enchanted” and her first visit here made her college choice easy.

Drew Wood ’23 reflected on how she learned to be a brave young woman at Sweet Briar and how, although she and her classmates may eventually forget their books or their dorm room, and other things about their time here, they will never forget the kindness of those on campus who encouraged them to take their own paths.

Katya Schell ’23 then introduced the baccalaureate speaker, Assistant Dean of Student Success Tony Ryals, who also gave the address in 2022. The graduating class selected Ryals because they felt he always kept it real with them and helped them with anything they needed.

Tony Ryals addresses the Class of '23 (photo by Cassie Foster Evans). Tony Ryals addresses the Class of '23 (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).Ryals began his address by acknowledging that this class did more than just make it. Instead, he explained, they survived. Most notably, they survived the challenge of the pandemic and because of that he encouraged them to look around at those who were still here and acknowledge what they had been through together. He went on to offer a plan for success which included embracing every moment, owning your own path, trusting the process and challenging themselves.

To him, the Class of 2023 deserves to be celebrated and that even though they may think they aren’t ready for their next steps, they should remember that they felt that when they first arrived on campus. Now, he explained, as they leave and take that last turn off campus, they are leaving as an example for others to follow. He added, “Class of 2023, go change the world.”

His words of encouragement were followed by the presentation of the rose, in which Dean Teresa Garrett and Dean Kerry Greenstein take from the students the daisies they carried into the ceremony as a representation of their time at Sweet Briar and exchange them for the roses they now earn as they graduate. Dr. Harris accompanied this processional with a piano performance of “To a Wild Rose,” as many students and parents shed a few tears.

Following the processional, the Sweet Tones performed the “Sweet Briar Song,” and Ciara Kocik ’23 and Cassandra Munford ’23 sang a beautiful rendition of the song “For Good” from the musical Wicked.

The final reading by Elizabeth Gilkey ’23 expressed what many members of the Class of 2023 may not yet realize as they face leaving campus to design their futures. As she said, “Sweet Briar, in all its external charm, does more for us than we will ever know.”

Chaplain Moser concluded the ceremony with a benediction in which she asked God to rejoice as we rejoice. The students filed out in a recessional to the front of Mills Chapel where they celebrated.


Commencement Ceremony

Commencement 2023 (photo by Cassie Foster Evans). Commencement 2023 (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).The ground may have been soggy and many in attendance carried folded umbrellas in case of bad weather, but neither of those things dampened the spirits of those attending the 114th Commencement at Sweet Briar College and luckily the rain never fell. The ceremony started right on time with the processional led by the Albemarle Pipes and Drums, followed by faculty members, the president’s cabinet, honored guests and the graduating class.

With her invocation, Chaplain Lindsey Moser recognized the students’ personal growth during their time at Sweet Briar and asked them to honor the opportunity they have had to find out who they are.

President Meredith Woo welcomed the gathered audience by announcing it as a time to celebrate the tenacious and strong-willed women of this class, as well as their families, the College faculty and staff, and all those at Sweet Briar who are committed to the education of these women of consequence.

Presidential Medalist, Sita Moses ’23, echoed the fact that her class is resilient as everything they went through tested their array of tools. In the long run, she said, “Every day that you chose to keep going has brought you here.”

Class President, Brianna Rabassa ’23, offered the reminder that Sweet Briar provides a sisterhood that no other college would have. She ended with a chant of “Who are we? ’23” to the excitement of her classmates.

The Honorable Verda M. Colvin '87 (photo taken by Cassie Foster Evans). The Honorable Verda M. Colvin '87 (photo taken by Cassie Foster Evans).The Honorable Verda M. Colvin ’87, Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, then presented her commencement address titled, “The World Desperately Needs a Sweet Briar Woman.” Speaking as a Sweet Briar alumna, Colvin reflected on her “fellow Vixen sisters” who fought to ensure this special place known as Sweet Briar College would be here for others to experience an unmatched educational oasis. Because, she added, “Here women lead.”

She asked the graduates to recognize that Sweet Briar is a special place that allows women to lean into leading and excelling, while creating an environment that is conducive to personal growth. She encouraged them to move boldly in the direction of their dreams and aspirations and seek out opportunities that allow them to continue to grow, both personally and professionally.

“There is no passion to be found in playing small and settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. By playing it small you only leave room for fear. Women who lead cannot afford to play small,” she said.

“Your future starts today, right now. Not tomorrow,” she said as she expressed how graduates of a women’s college like Sweet Briar must be change agents. The world needs women leaders who not only create opportunity for themselves, but also remember to serve others.

Following the presentation of candidates and conferring of degrees, board chair Mason Bennett Rummel ’83, offered congratulations from the board of directors. She shared how she still feels such gratitude for what this institution afforded her and what she took with her forty years ago. She congratulated the graduates who have plans for their future while encouraging those who don’t know their next steps yet as she added, “Don’t worry. You are well armed.”

Courtney Hurt ’10 also shared congratulations from the Alumnae Alliance Council. She noted how easy it can be to feel disconnected from the Sweet Briar family and encouraged the graduates to stay connected as she has found it is a great source of support, inspiration and joy.

Executive leaders of the Student Government Association, Maddie Swartz ’24 and Ciara Kocik ’23, then announced the winners of the SGA Excellence in Teaching and the Excellence in Service awards. The teaching award went to Kala Bonner, Assistant Professor of Biology. The service award was presented to Jaze Spradley, Campus Safety Officer II. Those in attendance who received awards at the ceremony on Friday also were asked to stand and be acknowledged. Members of the Sweet Briar faculty (photo by Cassie Foster Evans). Members of the Sweet Briar faculty (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).

To close out the ceremony, President Meredith Woo presented her charge to the Class of 2023. She explained how this year, she asked the latest version of Chat GPT to help her write something new for this class. It did and what she learned was that although the software delivered a brilliant and sophisticated speech, what it produced lacked soul because it did not know the members of this class like she does.

President Woo went on to describe what she knew about this year’s graduates. She described how their time at Sweet Briar was marked by two world-historical events: Covid-19 and the demand for racial justice. She shared how through the experience of Covid-19, these students learned the hard truth that “for each of us to be safe, all had to be safe. And for all to be safe, each of you had to be safe.”

Likewise, with the demand for racial justice, the students acted as one. They expressed their aspirations for a community free of discrimination – any discrimination. She said, “…you had the conviction that we should all be treated with respect and dignity.” So, her charge for the Class of 2023 was based on their experiences during this historic time that caused them to think long and hard about what it means to belong to a community and be a democratic citizen.

“You may never beat artificial intelligence in knowledge, brilliance or even wisdom. But only you can forge the world in that stubborn and wonderous soul of yours, with all its contradictory impulses.” This, she said, is something that artificial intelligence cannot envision, and machine learning can never do. “The world is still your oyster, Class of 2023, and our friend A.I. has nothing on you.”

Holla! Holla! Congratulations Vixens Sweet Briar College Class of 2023!

Members of the Class of 2023 (photo by Cassie Foster Evans). Members of the Class of 2023 (photo by Cassie Foster Evans).