Courageous mission inspires new academic year

Sweet Briar students attend Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023
Sweet Briar students attend Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023
Sweet Briar students attend Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023

The Sweet Briar community gathered on Monday, August 21, to celebrate the 118th academic session.

Posted on August 23, 2023 by Sandra Huffman

The message was one of courage and inspiration as the Sweet Briar College community gathered to celebrate the opening of the 118 th academic session during the Opening Convocation ceremony held Monday, August 21, in the Murchison Lane Auditorium.

After the processional of faculty and members of the president’s cabinet entered the auditorium, Chaplain Lindsey Moser opened this special occasion with an invocation asking community members to embrace this time as a new beginning, and to seize the opportunities it will bring. She asked that, as we embark on this new semester together, we find hope for the future and motivation to continue stepping into the personhood we are each called into.

Faculty attend Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023 Faculty attend Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023Interim President Mary Pope M. Hutson ’83 then greeted the College community as she expressed her appreciation and honor to serve her alma mater as the interim president. She said, “As an alumna of this College, I also have a special passion and dedication to its mission, and I am deeply grateful to have this opportunity to collaborate with the committed and talented faculty and staff who dedicate themselves to this place and its people each and every day.”

Hutson went on to recognize alumnae in the audience, including Sally Old Kitchin ’76 who is also a former board member, and appreciation to Past President Phil Stone, also in attendance, for his dedication and service to Sweet Briar. Hutson then extended a special welcome to transfer students and the Class of 2027, as she hoped their first days on campus had been fun and exhilarating, providing them with a glimpse of what lies ahead.

President Hutson then introduced Katie Grush ’24, student government association president. Grush, who said one of her goals is to spread joy and positivity, shared Disney-themed messages for each student body class and expressed her hope that they would see this time as one of new beginnings and fresh starts.

Katie Grush '24 addresses Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023 Katie Grush ’24 addresses Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023

  • To the freshman, Class of 2027, Grush said that this time may seem like they are entering a whole new world and that, for them, it is a time of bold adaptions and self-understanding.
  • To the sophomores, Class of 2026, she asked that the “beloved littles” say yes and get involved, because she believes they can go the distance.
  • To the juniors, Class of 2025, Grush’s message was a reminder to implement a strong work-life balance as classes get harder and they take on more leadership roles.
  • Finally, to her senior sisters in the Class of 2024, she remarked how in the circle of life, they had reached the peak and while graduating is important, they should also think about being prepared for the real world by teaming up with the career services office.

Finally, Grush said, “As we adapt to new routines, I encourage you to get involved and speak your minds—never forgetting, like Cinderella, to have courage and be kind.”

President Hutson then recognized new and revised roles for cabinet members and new staff and faculty, including the following who were in attendance:

  • John Dudley, Director of Communications and Marketing
  • Jason Vittone, Director of Athletics
  • Cynthia Peterson, Assistant vice president for Admissions
  • Claire Dennison Griffith ’80, Interim VP for Alumnae Relations and Development
  • Kathleen Placidi, Director of Institutional Grants
  • Max Cirillo, Residence Life Coordinator
  • Lindsey Evans, Building Operations
  • Sandy Huffman, Communications and Event Coordinator
  • Susan McQueary, Human Resources Generalist
  • Lindsey Moser, Chaplain
  • Hunter Overstreet, Senior Financial Aide Counselor
  • Cole Pillow, Visual Communications Manager
  • Tracy Price, Controller
  • Jaraka Waite, Human Resources Generalist
  • Palmer Smith, Admissions Counselor
  • Zhen Liang, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
  • Joanna Friesen, Head Coach Cross Country/Track and Field Coach

Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Teresa Garrett then presented the convocation address which focused on the cardinal virtue of courage. From the idea of running into a burning building, standing up against a dictator, or dancing in front of alumnae, faculty and staff during the recent Sweet Briar Summer: Arts and Writing Retreat, Dean Garrett expressed how each individual will make their own courageous decisions.

She said, “You may not see me as shy or self-conscious. I, like all of us, have things that I am afraid of, that I’m afraid to do.” So, to her, dancing in front of an audience at the retreat was an opportunity to step outside her comfort zone. Teresa Garrett, VP of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, gives the Convocation Address at Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023 Teresa Garrett, VP of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, gives the Convocation Address at Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023

Clearly, she said, there is courage associated with the physical acts of warriors who display strength and endurance on a battlefield, or secret service agents, or any of the first responders who ran into the burning and collapsing World Trade Center buildings on 9/11.

“There are so many examples of this amazing kind of courage in our world, we don’t have to look far to find these acts of heroism,” she said. “And while some of us might have the opportunity to display acts of physical courage like this, these acts of heroism, most of us won’t. But we all have the opportunity to be courageous in other ways, like when we stand up, speak up, in the face of real consequence.”

Dean Garrett described how Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, gained the courage to stand up against social conventions and societal norms in order to devote her life to the service of others. Born to a wealthy, well-connected British family, Nightingale went to the front lines of the Crimean War and gained credit for reducing the mortality rate of soldiers. Despite fear, despite that it was unbecoming of a woman, that it was uppity. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow characterized her actions as “heroic womanhood.”

The Sweet Briar community benefitted from the alumnae, faculty and staff who displayed courage when they acted quickly to save the College in 2015—refusing to let this special, precious place close. “Since then,” Dean Garrett added, “I have seen students, faculty and staff display courage in numerous ways. They get things done, despite limited resources. They say things that need to be said, and, at times, they stand up to hold the College to account when we need to do better.”

Sometimes, despite the odds, something just needs to be done and Dean Garrett encouraged listeners to try, despite the pit in their stomachs, and do the right thing. The bold thing, she added, doesn’t need to be a huge act.

“Never underestimate the power of a small courageous act because people are watching and noticing,” she said. “More importantly, you will know that you acted, and you did something to be proud of.”

She recommended the following ways that students can show some courage: Take a course outside your comfort zone, listen to your advisor, raise your hand in class, go to that event, share your thoughts in class, share the truth of your heart, speak up for someone, speak up for yourself, have the courage to have hope, have the courage to have faith, and forgive yourself when you fall short.

“To be courageous takes practice,” she said. “We get better at it the more we exercise it.”

Dean Garrett also spoke of the positive influence of notable figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher and even Barbie, who help counteract the expectations and beliefs that society projects onto individuals, especially women. Courage, she said, often means standing out and sometimes that just means having the courage to be your true authentic self.

Finally, she asked that we remember Sweet Briar is a place with a courageous mission to challenge and inspire women. When she danced at the retreat, the instructors challenged her and her close relationships gave her inspiration, which made it personal and meaningful, and that is why it was a courageous act for her.

“I’m glad that I did it,” she said as she closed her address. “…and I hope you too will find ways to have that same feeling as a part of this precious, important Sweet Briar community. It is a safe one to be vulnerable in and a place that needs your courage.”

Following the convocation address, President Hutson delivered her charge for the academic year by first asking students to think about what they will contribute to the campus community. She said, “Making your mark starts now, not later.” Interim President Mary Pope M. Hutson '83 greets the College community during Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023 Interim President Mary Pope M. Hutson ’83 greets the College community during Opening Convocation, August 21, 2023

She then explained how her experience as a Sweet Briar student challenged her to lead. Other students, staff and faculty supported her, and even the college president cheered for her at tennis matches. They encouraged her to be bold and make a difference. Now, as interim president, Hutson said, “We will get to know each other much better in the coming months, but please know I am your champion.”

She said the Sweet Briar mission statement provides a road map for a better world, a just and sustainable world. The path of creating this is daunting. Hutson added, “But, I have faith in you, our students. The world needs you, your ethical leadership, your idealism, your energy and your spirit. Sweet Briar and the world need compassionate leadership.”

She urged the seniors to seek opportunities to try something they’ve never done before on this campus. She charged all in attendance to do their best to contribute to Sweet Briar and all the amazing people in the community.

“Challenge yourself and stay curious,” she added. “Lead with conviction and heart, so you will do your part to build a stronger, more inclusive community. Get to know one another and accept and celebrate our differences, for this makes us a more vibrant community. And I charge you to do this wherever your path leads you in the lifelong network of our alumnae and our extended Sweet Briar family. And also, please don’t forget to have fun along the way.”