Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sweet Briar 2.0: Be a Part of History!

Brooke Linville, creator of and
Sweet Briar superheroine.
Yesterday, June 20, 2015, the office of VA Attorney General Mark Herring announced that mediation has been successful, and that Sweet Briar College would stay open.

The elation brought the story all the way to the top of the trending list on Facebook. We have cried, shouted, sung, and rung the bells on campus. I have never felt such relief. If we can manage this turnaround right, Sweet Briar will remain open for our daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters. I am not saying that all of my female progeny have to attend, but I would love leave an incentive in my will for them to apply and interview.

Not that I am complaining, but the question I am now left with is: whence goeth my blog? I had expected to write at least several more empassioned posts imploring folks to help save the school. Now that it is saved - hurray! - what is its reason for being?

The answer that comes to me is recruitment. Sweet Briar will be open this fall, and I intend to keep shouting from the rooftops what a great school this is and why every woman approaching their college years should apply and interviews.

So here's my first reason you should attend Sweet Briar, dear future vixen: our feisty, supportive group of alumnae. When the closure was announced, we had a moment of silence and grief, and then we sprang into action.

On Facebook, we mobilized into groups based on expertise: marketing, law, business, IT/web, etc. An unbelievable alumna named Brooke Linville immediately set up the website that served as the hub for fundraising updates: She has a family and a job, yet she burned the candle at both ends for months to help make our success possible. Countless others like her led the effort in their own arenas, fighting legal battles and raising funds.

Mediation succeeded because these dedicated alumnae found creative ways to call us to action to support our school. There were T-shirt sales, fundraisers, crafts, and events throughout the country. Brooke Linville got creative, setting up contests, unafraid to turn her website into a scavenger hunt for vixens and cows, and even offering to take pictures of herself in a cow costume if pledges on the website got high enough.

Laugh if you want, but here is the Sweet Briar difference: our faculty, staff, and alumnae will do everything in our power to support the success of Sweet Briar and her students. We write letters of recommendation, post job openings, and host students in our homes, schools, and workplaces. We will even overwork and poke fun at ourselves for a cause we believe in. We don't do this out of obligation, but out of a passionate love for this school. Sweet Briar helped us to find our success, and we can't wait to offer a hand of support to the next wave of graduates. This isn't cronyism; this is community. By attending this institution, you enter a meritocracy of sisters. My Sweet Briar sisters have been my confidantes, bridesmaids, best friends, job counselors, and so much more. They are the kindest and most intelligent, hardworking, and motivated women I have ever met. Further, the staff still remember my face and give me hugs when I visit the campus, and my professors still remember me fondly. If I need help, they are eternally there.

Apply to Sweet Briar and be a part of history. This year, we will do everything we can to hold onto what makes our school great, remove what nearly steered her into ruin, and innovate to make her into the finest institution she can be. After your history-making tenure at Sweet Briar, you will be invited into the fold of our sisterhood, and we will do everything we can do nurture you in your future endeavors.

Join us as we create Sweet Briar 2.0!

Friday, June 19, 2015

How to Get Your Letter of Acceptance to Hogwarts (or Close Enough)

Herr Horwege and alumnae Tamara Murphy (left)) and
Katherine Cook at a recent event supporting
Saving Sweet Briar.
In the Spring of 1999, I decided to go abroad to Heidelberg, Germany for my junior year.

Although Sweet Briar College had thriving Junior Year Abroad Programs in Spain and France, to which one could bring scholarships and other financial aid, nothing similar existed for Germany. I had just won an Honors Scholarship. The Financial Aid office congratulated me and assured me it would still be on my academic record, but I would not receive these or other scholarship funds if I went abroad to Germany.

A number of other institutions offered pricy year abroad options in Germany, but, again, I was unable to transfer my financial aid to any of them. I told my professor, Dr. Ronald Horwege, that I truly wanted to go, but that it wouldn't be financially possible under these American programs.

A few days later, Herr Horwege (as we affectionately call him) told me that he had made a phone call and arranged everything with the university in Heidelberg. For decades, he had been offering a free spot at Sweet Briar each fall to a student from Heidelberg - including room, board, and tuition - and he told them that it was time that they offered a similar situation to his students. Essentially, he was calling in over twenty years worth of favors for me.

This is the difference we find at women's colleges. With small class sizes, professors get to know students well and support them professionally and personally. 

This is by no means limited to the German department. My sister also attended Sweet Briar, and one of her favorite professors is a constitutional scholar who helped her to find summer internships at a law firm and at the Supreme Court of the United States. She once gave me a tour of the building, including the private basketball court that is above the courtroom ("the highest court in the land"). As I wound through the back passages of this hallowed institution, I marveled at what Sweet Briar had done for my sister and me and for countless students before us.

Sweet Briar deserves to be saved because it combines stellar academics, breathtaking scenery, and fantastic mentoring opportunities into a life-changing four-year experience. Professors make themselves accessible everyday - Ph.D., tenured professors, not T.A.s - from the very first classes. They open their homes to you and cook for you. They write shining letters of recommendation that convey they know you very well. Even in the largest classes I ever attended, no larger than a high school classroom, I had excellent access to and rapport with my teachers.

With all respect to larger institutions, I don't believe that this is the experience one finds there. When I attended summer courses close to home, I experienced very large classes, professors who probably had no idea I existed, and women who flirted with their seatmates by trying to convince them how horrible they were in the subject ("would you please tutor me?"). Again, I don't mean to demean the coed experience, but studies show that women are still passed over in the classroom, afraid to speak and unlikely to be called upon. This daily disregard translates into connections lost. How can we be surprised that women aren't getting the prized internships and job positions of the world if their professors and classmates don't take them seriously? It came into focus for me during those classes why graduates of women's colleges - comprising only 2% of the population of women graduating from college - represent 20% of women in Congress and 30% of Businessweek's list of Rising Women in Corporate America. For better or worse, personal connections make all of the difference in the world of work, and being able to find an institution that takes you seriously and works for your advancement makes all the difference.

A lot of film images have run through my mind since the announcement of the closure. Take the Goonies, for example, in which a group of kids races to find a secret stash of pirate treasure that will save their community from scheming developers. We have been robbing our own piggy banks for the last few months, and if the founder of the school, Indiana Fletcher Williams, had left buried treasure, we certainly would have found it by now. As for the scheming developers, there are plenty of rumors circling. I will defer you there to other articles.

The film that has most repeatedly come to my mind, though, has been Harry Potter. Laugh if you will, but every student who selects and attends Sweet Briar reports feeling caught up in a magical set of circumstances. Receiving my letter of acceptance to Sweet Briar was the closest I have ever come to what I and millions others imagine a letter of acceptance to Hogwarts would feel like. For someone who felt very Hermione-esque, finding a place to nurture my intellect that also felt like a home and offered solid friendships made all the difference. Any Sweet Briar alumna can fill you in on further details - this post is already getting long. Sweet Briar deserves to be awarded major points, though, that no giant snakes or evil wizards were ever involved.

A few years ago, Dr. Horwege announced that Sweet Briar would no longer be offering German. His former students tried to rally around him, but we were unable to save his program. To support their decision, the administration offered statistics that we knew to be false. They said that enrollment in German was falling, but Herr Horwege had one of the most robust language programs at the school. Interest in learning German was also increasing across the nation due to the strong economic position of Germany and the growing number of jobs requiring German language ability. No amount of facts would convince the school to keep offering German. It was one of two programs they eliminated that year, citing hard economic times and a need to trim the belt.

Herr Horwege had long said that the day they got rid of German at Sweet Briar would be the day that we would know the college was in trouble. How I wish we had paid more attention to these words. Instead of one program being lost, an institution hangs in the balance. Once again, we are faced with obstinacy and false statistics.

Please, alumnae, family, and friends, do not let our Hogwarts pass away. On Monday, a circuit court judge takes our case back to his courtroom. He very well could pass an injunction against closing the school, but he has made it very clear that he wants to see that the money exists to keep it running. Otherwise, a new set of administrators will not have a chance to get it back on the rails.

If you have even one dollar to contribute, please do so. It's not every day you get to help save a beloved institution of higher learning. Please, add to the treasure pot that will help us save our beloved school. Help us to make more senators, representatives, CEOs, entrepreneurs, dancers, actors, scientists, and athletes. Help us to help the next generation of women find their voice and pursue their excellence.


Please consider making a donation to Saving Sweet Briar, a 501(c)3 organization. Donations are tax-deductible and eligible for employee matching gifts.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Maya Angelou and the Meaning of Regret

Photo courtesy the SBC Alumnae Magazine, Spring 1999
In November of 1998, Maya Angelou gave a speech to the Sweet Briar College Community. I was a second year student who owned a complete compilation of her poetry and many of her autobiographies, and I was thankful for the chance to hear her speak.

Our Honors Program was hosting a dinner program welcoming our counterparts from Hampden-Sydney College students, and we would be attending the speech afterward as a group. For those unaware, Hampden-Sydney is one of the few remaining single-sex colleges for men, and, though it is over an hour away, it is affectionately known as Sweet Briar's brother college.  I had decided to attend this dinner, thinking that perhaps it was an opportunity to meet someone like-minded. After all, it wasn't crazy to believe a fan of Dr. Angelou's works who cared about women and minority rights would be attendance, was it? Also, perhaps not so far-fetched that he might look like he had been taken from a page of the J. Crew summer catalogue?

As I was getting ready for the dinner and pondering such possibilities, my former roommate, Alex, approached me with the gleeful news that the first few students in line for Dr. Angelou's speech were to be honored with the chance of sitting behind her onstage and perhaps meeting her briefly. We had planned to go to the Honors Program dinner together, but she begged me to ditch it and join her.

I hesitated, seriously considering her plan. In the end, I declined, deciding that the chances of making a good connection at the dinner were greater than those of meeting Maya Angelou. In my defense, I can only say that, in addition to being both nuturing and liberating, women's colleges can leave one more than a little lonely for male companionship.

The dinner was lovely, but, sadly, no one caught my attention. None of the Hampden-Sydney students seemed very excited to discuss Dr. Angelou or her works, and only the excellent food kept me from completely regretting my decision. I reasoned that Alex was probably in this very moment regretting missing dinner, standing in a long line with no hopes of sitting onstage.

When dinner was over, we walked over to the auditorium as a group, ushering our brothers to the speech. After I took my seat alone, I was shocked to look up and see Alex beaming and waving at me from the stage. On cue, my heart descended rapidly to my feet. A few minutes later, Dr. Angelou took the stage, shaking the hand of each student sitting behind the podium, including Alex, who beamed with pride.

I managed to coax my heart back into its proper place as I counseled myself that it was an honor just to be sitting in Dr. Angelou's presence. She took the podium, her voice suddenly arising, rich and melifluous. Her tones flowed like baritone honey from her statuesque, red-robed form. She smiled broadly - how her whole being seemed to smile! - as she scanned the room precisely, seeming to individually address us as beloved friends and family, more so than as a crowd. More than once, I felt as if she were looking and speaking directly to me. Many other students in attendance reported this effect, so I think this was more due to Dr. Angelou's warmth and her intimate style than to an alignment of the stars in my direction. To hear her speak felt like being pulled into the warmth of a grandmother's cloak, a matriarch who beamed as she showed you each patch and explained its origin, stitching history together as you watched in rapt stillness. I have yet to hear a more compelling speech.

I have thought about this lesson often in the years that have passed in between. After Dr. Angelou passed, I felt a familiar pang of regret. I would never have another opportunity to hear her speak, to shake her hand, or to sit beside her. Perhaps it is true that remorse often teaches us more than fulfillment, because that day, I learned a very important lesson:

Sisters before misters.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why Sweet Briar College Must Not Pass Away

Image courtesy of
In the fall of 1998, Julian Bond, then Chairman of the NAACP, came to speak at Sweet Briar College.

I was a second year student at the time. As she often did when such dignitaries came to the campus, the Chaplain of the college was hosting a small tea party to give students and professors a chance to chat with Mr. Bond. I had not yet attended one of these, so I sent my RSVP and was very excited to attend.

This event yielded what I still hold as one of my greatest memories and one of the most defining moments of my life. The scene was calm and idyllic. A beautiful fall day shone crisply outside the windows. Mr. Bond sat in an armchair, a small group assembled around him on antique couches and chairs. We balanced coffee and petite-fours on delicate plates on our knees, a little star-struck and nervous. We wanted to ask questions and enter the conversation yet were afraid of saying something less than impressive in the midst of such an intelligent and accomplished person.

The topic of feminism arose. A student near me offered, "I don't considered myself a feminist. It has such negative connotations." After a moment of consideration, I countered, "I consider myself a feminist because of the dictionary definition. The word means that you believe women deserve equal rights to men, and I do. The word has been a bit vilified, but I still believe in owning this word and what it means. To me, it means something important and that's all that matters, not the connotations that others have added to it. These aren't even in the dictionary."

Mr. Bond looked at me paused for a moment, held a finger to his lips, and nodded. He then said, "Choose your own terms, don't be afraid of others' connotations. I like that. That's good." He then looked at me approvingly before moving on to a question from across the room.

The conversation moved on, but I was transfixed by that moment. I had been a little afraid to offer my own opinion, especially one that conflicted with another student's, but I had decided to take a chance on speaking my own mind. That it was heard, considered, and met with approval by our honored guest was exhilarating.

This event defines the education and self-worth that I earned at Sweet Briar College. From my first moments on campus to my day of departure, this college nurtured my intellect and my sense of self-worth. During my first semester, for example, I took an Honors Seminar called "Women and Migration in the Pacific Rim." It was taught by a visiting honor's fellow named Greta Niu. It turned out to be perhaps the most important class I was ever to take.

The first thing that Professor Niu said to us was: "Analyze everything. Don't take anything at face value, not even, and especially not, what I or other professors tell you or what you read in your textbooks. Make sure it stands up to your own intellectual scrutiny. Does the speaker have a hidden motivation? Is someone else supporting the information with monetary compensation? Is there a political agenda? This course will encourage you to stretch your own intellect and make your own determinations based on sound judgment. I expect nothing less from you. Don't borrow anyone else's words. Use your own."

I was amazed. A professor telling me to not just spout verbatim her words or those of the text? Revolutionary. I had just left a paternalistic Appalachian high school; the American History professor, for example, evaluated historical men by their "effectiveness" and women in history by their level of "hotness." I had been mocked by the teacher and giggled at by the peanut gallery for trying to argue with this.

In that moment, at Professor Niu's words, I felt liberated.

This is the lineage that Sweet Briar offers its students: to become professional, academic women
who leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of personal and educational excellence. It should come as no surprise, then, that the news of the closing of Sweet Briar was met with tears and mourning. This place is like a mother who taught us to think, act, create, and innovate. How could she be in a terminal state?

Unlike the encouragement we had always been given, however, to ask difficult questions and make our own determinations, the Board of Directors met questioning of its conclusions with disdain. They expected us to take their word as authority, to accept without question that the school was unviable and that today's students were neither choosing to attend a rural women's college nor "of the caliber of our generations."

Sadly, the dialogue between the movement to save Sweet Briar and the movement to close has been a very tense one. We expected the administration to be excited that alumnae were sending out a global call to action to save the school, yet we were met with the same sexist slurs that we've all heard leveled at us in the workplace: emotional, vitriolic, irrational. We had never expected to hear these words from those running our school.

I am pretty sure these were the terms leveled at abolitionists and suffragettes. Every day in the work place, women are marginalized, discounted, waved away, patted on the head, and sent out of the room so the big boys can make the real decisions. Is this behavior earned? Are men better off without women, right to merely humor us and marvel at how much better the world of work was before we entered their spaces?

I say, emphatically, no. Sweet Briar is still relevant. It still breathes and yearns to continue to educate because women are still met with emotional slurs when they speak in reasoned terms. Today, our own administrators, a group who has systematically taken the reins by alienating and firing those who stood by its core values, are asking us not to apply the very education that Sweet Briar gave us.

Again, I say no. I choose my own terms. I am not emotional or irrational. I have looked at more statistics and learned more about trial and trust law than I ever thought possible in just a few months and over one issue. I have read, analyzed, discussed, and evaluated, and I have determined that Sweet Briar is not dead or dying. Someone is trying to push her over the cliff, as if to collect on a recently acquired life insurance policy.

Rural colleges are not irrelevant. Women's Colleges are not irrelevant. They may be the day that women are no longer called emotional and irrational for daring to form a different opinion than men, but the Sweet Briar Board of Directors has proven this day has far from arrived.

Thank you, Sweet Briar, for helping me to develop my individualism and reason. Thank you, Greta Niu, for encouraging me to always dig deeper. And thank you, Julian Bond, for helping me to own my own terms. May we be able to use what this fine institution gave us to save her and to be able pass these values on to the next generation of students, every bit as fine as our own.