Headlines were made last week regarding the decision by the board of directors of Sweet Briar College to close the single-sex school as a result of “insurmountable financial challenges.” Sweet Briar College has provided a haven for young women for 114 years by allowing them to explore,grow, and learn in a encouraging and vibrant academic environment. In spite of the decision, current students, alumnae, faculty, and staff are determined to fight for Sweet Briar. Victoria Gentry, a 2012 graduate, reflects on her time there.
By Victoria Gentry – Pouring over the Princeton Review’s 361 Best Colleges, my mother and I methodically began highlighting schools that appeared on the book’s “ranking lists”. At the end of our research, Sweet Briar College was highlighted numerous times and we wondered aloud, “What in the world is Sweet Briar?”. Born and raised in Virginia, neither of us had ever heard of Sweet Briar. Upon learning that it was a women’s college made up of 700 undergraduates and 5 graduate students, we literally laughed out loud.
I had never considered a single-sex education and I was apprehensive about spending my college years hidden away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. At my mother’s insistence, however, she encouraged me to at least further investigate Sweet Briar because it was listed on so many of the Princeton’s Reviews “ranking lists”. This decision altered the course of my life forever by connecting me with a sisterhood of 10,000 Sweet Briar Women.
Without an all-female education, I know that I would not feel free to explore, invent, grow, and question. Sweet Briar taught me that I am worthy of having a seat at the table and, furthermore, taught me to pull up a chair, if need be.
Today, those early days of 2007 seem hazed in Blue Ridge sunsets and rainy-day tours through Georgian Revival walkways. I wasn’t aware that my life was beginning a rich, vibrant, spectacular journey where people would invest in me as a person. It caught me off-guard when a professor asked me to meet her in her office and I immediately assumed that my work was unsatisfactory. As my face went pale, the professor chuckled and stated, “Oh, you’re not in trouble. I just wanted to get to know you”. Still skeptical, I sat with this kind professor for an hour talked about dreams, family, and study abroad. At the time, I thought this moment of humanity was a rare, but this is merely one of thousands of identical stories.
In-classroom experiences at Sweet Briar are rigorous. Professors expect thoughtfully-considered answers and frequent, earnest participation. The questions professors asked weren’t “yes” or “no” or even a “right” or “wrong”-types of question. Instead, professors asked questions beginning with the word “how”. Classroom experiences and “how” questions call Sweet Briar Women to solve problems. In many places, brainstorming ideas on how to solve global poverty within our lifetime may seem quaint and naïve. “Dreams for little girls to wish upon”, I hear The World echo. All-female education, however, changes the conversation by breeding a culture of confidence and independence. By my senior year, in fact, one of the art history professors had told us on multiple occasions that he firmly believed that “women would be the ones to save the world”. After four years this of electric learning atmosphere, my sisters and I finally mirrored the confidence and respect that had been shown to us.
Sweet Briar College Class of 1945
Finally, Sweet Briar’s culture of mutual-respect and acceptance created fertile soil for the most rewarding friendships of my life. This environment allowed me to give fully of myself as a friend and to invest deeply in building relationships with others. There was no need to be anxious about our friends discovering our “true selves”, masked deep behind layers insecurities and imperfections. This honesty-of-person gave way to rich college-wide traditions that transcended a century. The memories made from these friendships are more valuable than treasure The World could provide.
Without an all-female education, I know that I would not feel free to explore, invent, grow, and question. Sweet Briar taught me that I am worthy of having a seat at the table and, furthermore, taught me to pull up a chair, if need be. This is only one of the many reasons that the Board of Directors’ decision to close the College is a devastating loss of identity. An alumna of 1974 told her daughter, an alumna of 2012, that the Board’s decision is “like a death in the family”. It is. We all feel that way. The haven that built us is on the verge of destruction. We are watching Rome burn and being told sit on our hands.
But we aren’t. Our hands are doing anything but being idle. Unlike a death in the family, however, there can be a willful revival. According the Board, young women aren’t interested in attending a rural, single-sex, liberal arts college. And despite a $94 million endowment, the Board believes that it is not financially responsible to continue existing if women aren’t interested in their product. This, however, is not a new dilemma. I had no idea that I needed, to quote the Dixie Chicks, wide open spaces.
Victoria Gentry is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, and is currently pursuing her JD from Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, TN. She is passionate about public interest law and hopes to pursue a career in employment and labor laws after graduation in 2015.
Victoria enjoys cooking with her husband and hiking with her two dogs.