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.

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