President's Blog

The Poet Laureate Visits Sweet Briar

Threthewey greeting students after the reading

Threthewey greeting students after the reading

Yesterday the U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, visited campus. You can read coverage of the public events here and here; both the afternoon discussion and evening reading were inspiring, engaging, and meaningful to students —  those who are writers themselves and those who are “merely” readers and lovers of poetry.

But here’s part of the story you won’t read about in the press. Before the reading, the dinner table at Sweet Briar House was surrounded by Trethewey, student writers, poet/professor John Casteen, and me. As president, one of the privileges I most enjoy is bringing students together with distinguished visitors and faculty mentors in that lovely home. Sometimes it takes my breath away when I realize that yes, these students really are eating dinner with the Poet Laureate and discussing complex and sophisticated matters. It was a treat to hear the conversation:

Is there any ground to the stereotype that artistic ability is inherently associated with mental illness, addiction, and social eccentricity? (One of the students offered a very astute comment, pointing out that creative thinking is essential in many fields and not just in the arts — yet we do not have the same romantic stereotype about, say, economists. Good point!) Trethewey with JGB

Might a poet whose reputation has been built on social media and digital publishing be named as poet laureate anytime soon? (The consensus was no, probably not.) Why have so few poet laureates been young? (This led to an interesting set of reflections on the difference between early and late career work.) Why do many women who write poetry as undergraduates choose not to pursue graduate school or fellowships? (We were a little bit stumped.)

Why do so many people think that art that is popular is by definition of lesser quality than work that nobody actually reads for pleasure? (Again, a little stumped: isn’t the point of writing poetry for the poems to be read?)

Ashley Tucker '15, whose parents drove from Ohio to join her at the reading, with Trethewey

Ashley Tucker ’15, whose parents drove from Ohio to hear her introduce Trethewey


One of the students who attended had this to say this morning on Facebook:

“Best day ever. I am so blessed to have been able to have dinner with the United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey this evening at President Parker’s house.”

She’s right. It was a pretty great day.

Our Environmental Legacy

Monarch with MountainSweet Briar students and alumnae know that one of the defining aspects of our campus is the beautiful expanse of land it occupies. Here on more than 3,000 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, we live among daily reminders that the natural environment is among our most treasured legacies as a college — and that environmental responsibility and stewardship are essential for  students to understand at local, regional, national, and global levels.

We recently announced a major step in our efforts to be good stewards: all of the electricity used on campus is now “green!” Specifically, we’re buying electricity generated from the renewable resource of landfill gas. Click here to see the press release announcing this important move, which not only helps us meet our goals as participants in the Presidents’ Climate Commitment but also helps us contain cost increases for more than a decade to come.

(Partnership between Sweet Briar and other local institutions made this possible. We’re proud to be among those colleges and universities which are working together for the sake of the environment we all share.)

Shortly after the announcement of our green electricity initiative, this year’s Waxter Forum was held. The speaker was Josh Fox, film director and environmentalist, whose films Gasland and Gasland 2 have explored the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this year’s forum in person, but there was good coverage in the local press; and, since some of the students who have friended me on Facebook were there, I was able to see from their comments how engaged and lively the reaction to his lecture was. In a high point, for example, he suggested that Sweet Briar students who want to protest fracking might win media attention by riding horses all the way from campus to Washington D.C.!

Sweet Briar students and faculty members and alumnae hold a range of opinions on important environmental issues: on fracking, certainly, and forest management, and climate change, and others. But I think all agree that an informed citizen at this moment in history should be conversant with the issues and aware of the debates. Events like the Waxter Forum help make sure that our students, whether or not they take Environmental Studies courses, think about these issues and hear from national leaders who are shaping the debates.



And We’re Back for Second Semester

We’re back on campus, classes underway, activities in high gear, and the winter weather fortunately a bit more moderate than it was a week or two ago!

With Rick in Havana

With Rick in Havana (photo by Mary Shaw Halsey)

Since my last post, I’ve visited with alumnae in Florida and at a wonderful Sweet Briar Days event in Atlanta. I attended the annual President’s Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges, a great opportunity to think about Sweet Briar’s place in the distinctively American context of our nation’s private liberal arts colleges. And I’ve traveled with an astonishing group of alumnae and their family and friends to Cuba, where we met with many artists and intellectuals and learned more than I can wrap my head around at this point. (As I’ve been saying to people who ask about the trip, it’s going to take me months to reflect and read before I will have a sense of what I think about it all.)

So, you get the idea — since my last post it’s been several weeks of intensive travel. Now that I’m back on campus, happily once again among our students and faculty, some remarks I made at the closing dinner of the Cuba trip keep coming back to mind.

I’m paraphrasing now, but I told the group why I think traveling with Sweet Briar alumnae is so much fun. It all has to do with the kind of education they received here in Virginia. A Sweet Briar education encourages women to be their most curious and adventuresome selves. It teaches them how to ask interesting questions and gives them a broad intellectual context in which to consider new experiences.

With Alumnae, Hamel Alley, Havana (again, thanks Mary Shaw!)

With Alumnae, Hamel Alley, Havana (again, thanks Mary Shaw!)

It gives them an appreciation for the value and meaning of the arts and for the ways in which the interplay of art, science, politics, economics, psychology, religion, history, law, (the list goes on and on) sheds light on human experience in many nations at many times. Who wouldn’t want to travel — or for that matter work, or play — with women like that? For that matter, what young woman wouldn’t want to BE like that? As we travel through life, wherever we go, the journey is more interesting and more rewarding because of the way our minds have been shaped by our alma mater.



Happy New Year!

Monarch with Mountain

Gorgeous Early Summer Day In The Blue Ridge

My guess is if you read this blog you’ve already seen our year-end video greeting, but in case you haven’t click here to share a few scenes from the past year. It’s all there: the classroom discussions, research presentations, athletic feats, quiet study, clubs and traditions, faculty engagement, outdoorsmanship, and a whole lot of fun — in short, all the ingredients of the Sweet Briar experience.

Three Students After Convocation

Three Students After Convocation

As we say goodbye to 2013, it seems like a good moment to share a few images from the past year with the students, faculty, staff, friends and supporters who made it all possible. Fortunately, 2014 will be full of more of the same — student achievement, challenging study, faculty mentorship, friendship — and probably a few surprises to boot!

Whether you’re a student or a parent, a member of the faculty or staff, a friend, neighbor or donor, thank you for everything you do to make each year at Sweet Briar great. And best to you and yours for 2014!

Lively Competition at Briar Bowl!

Lively Competition at Briar Bowl!

Finals Week

It’s finals week, and I was about to type “and things are winding down” but of course that isn’t exactly true. Last night, for example, Co-Curricular Life sponsored Late Night Breakfast. Between 10 and midnight, students could come over to Prothro for a break and have a hearty helping of bacon, pancakes, omelettes, and juice to fortify themselves for a long night of studying. For the half hour before breakfast started, I led a short NIA workout to holiday tunes (my favorite Christmas album of all time, by the Blind Boys of Alabama — click to see and hear a sample) to remind them that music and movement are great stress relievers!

BookBut things have slowed down enough that I had time to go shopping for the books I intend to read over the holiday break. I’ll tell you what I chose — and what I thought about them! — when I get back in the New Year. But I also thought I’d issue an invitation: if you read anything that makes an impression on you over the holidays or receive any great gift books, send me a note with your recommendations. I’d love to know — and share — what blog readers are reading.

While we’re on the subject, over Thanksgiving I finally read Jill Lepore’s The Name of War. I couldn’t put it down, to the point where I risked being rude to my sister, nephew, husband, and son. (My sister cheerily pointed out that she grew accustomed to being ignored because my nose was in a book sometime in the early 60s.) While I admit that King Phillip’s War is not a topic I thought I was interested in, this book led me to think about American identity in new and challenging way and about how the ripples of history extend and expand, how we’re awash in them. . .



Happy Last-Day-Of-Classes Eve!

Santa President with a Deanly Elf and her daugher/assistant

Santa President with a Deanly Elf and her daughter/assistant

Last night Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall and I (and my two little dogs) donned holiday accessories and made a series of surprise visits to various dorms and the library, toting large bags from candy from which we distributed study break treats. We just wanted to wish everybody good luck with final exams and term papers!

Santa Coco

Santa Coco

Here are a few pictures. . . .





me santa library

Visiting some study spaces in the new library



Sweet Briar Engineering, making us proud!

Mr.MiltonAndFriendsHave you heard about “Sweet Prosthetics?” The local paper ran a story about it this morning: our own story is available on line.

Here it is, in a nutshell: Sweet Briar engineering students participate in a collaborative course on “Technology and Society” with students from St. Ambrose college. As part of this course, engineering students from Sweet Briar and occupational therapy students from St. Ambrose traveled to a village in Brazil  to work on developing low-cost and sustainable assistive devices for disabled people. While there last summer, they met a quadruple amputee, Mr. Milton. Moved and inspired by his situation, they set out to find a way to provide him with arm prosthetics that would allow him to perform many of the routine daily functions the rest of us take for granted.

Back home, they knew they needed some additional expertise, so our students connected with a specialist at UVa who agreed to help them with issues of fitting and customization. Turned out creating “Mr. Milton’s Arms” would require the use of a body model who had similar dimensions — and it turned out that maintenance supervisor Randy Cash was just the man and was more than happy to volunteer. The team, led by Professor Scott Pierce, now consisting of our engineering students, their colleagues at St. Ambrose, a faculty member at UVa, and a maintenance supervisor, have been busily at work and are prepared to begin building the arms.

Students at both Sweet Briar and St. Ambrose have been fundraising to buy the parts needed to build the arms. They’ve had some success, but they are about $2,500 short of their goal. If they can raise this amount between now and February, they will be able  to build the arms in time to deliver them to Mr. Milton in Brazil this summer.

As Sweet Briar’s president, I’ll cheerfully admit this is the kind of story that brings tears to my eyes. It combines engineering with a strong desire to serve, connects our students with people on other campuses and in other nations, and requires them not only to be good engineers but also requires them to be culturally sensitive, entrepreneurial, collaborative, and determined. This project summarizes what a Sweet Briar education is all about.

So, Vixens and friends of Vixens: very small gifts at this holiday season can make this very special project happen. If, as this calendar year draws to a close, you think you might be able to make an additional small gift for this very special purpose, please be in touch or go on to our “giving” website, where you can designate your gift for “Sweet Prosthetics.” How I would love to report to you all next summer on the day next summer when a team of occupational therapy students from St. Ambrose present Mr. Milton with new arms designed and built by Sweet Briar engineers!

(Please note, when originally published this post mistakenly referred to St. Ambrose in two sentences as “St. Anselm.” Apologies to both readers and our friends there!)



Students Arriving For Holiday Dinner on Sunday!

Community holiday dinner was Sunday evening: while bad weather kept many folks away, of course the students were all on campus and showed up in force — and in style! Thought you’d enjoy a couple of the outfits that made the evening festive.





Doing Science at SBC

Bio presentation 1This week biology seniors presented the research they’ve been doing. So many of them are doing independent research that it took two whole evenings for them all to present! (I was able to attend the first evening — and I apologize to those whose presentations I was unable to hear.)

Here are some of the titles of their projects — and don’t ask me to explain what they all mean:

  • Rates of Borrelia in Ixodidae Ticks in Amherst County (worryingly high, if you’re like me and love to take long walks in the woods.)
  • Responses of Nematodes, Mites, and Springtails to the Pesticide Fipronil
  • Effects of Floral Symmetry on Reproductive Success in Lobelia siphilitica
  • Breast Cancer Cell Line MDA-MB-231: Treatment with Anti-Cancer Furanone Compounds
  • Sweet Briar Soil Carbon (a study of historical levels of carbon sequestration, partly supported by a grant from the Tusculum Institute.)

And there were of course many others.

The opportunity to do actual, individual, scholarly research of this kind, under the direction of senior faculty members, is one of the hallmarks of Sweet Briar’s academic program. It’s one thing to learn science: it’s another thing entirely to do science, and these students are doing it. It’s the sort of thing that can only happen on a small campus, where access to faculty, equipment, and resources is open to all.

The audience arriving

The audience arriving

And many of these students were doing science by making use of the richness of our campus environment — dissecting ticks collected on campus, studying the visitation of pollinators to plants growing on campus, analyzing the chemistry of campus soil to learn about past conditions. We’re surrounded by 3,250 acres that our biologists use as a living lab.

Finally, of course, the faculty is very wise to incorporate public presentation into these research projects. Having done important research work, Sweet Briar students are expected to be able to organize and deliver a presentation that will clearly explain its meaning to an audience of both experts and non-experts. Whatever these students go on to do, this is a valuable and too-often-overlooked aspect of success.

Attending these presentations was one of those wonderful occasions that pretty much summarized what a Sweet Briar education is all about. Makes me want to be a student again, at a place like this. . .

Happy Thanksgiving!

There’s not much news to share from campus this week, as we’ve all been enjoying Thanksgiving break! ThankgivingStudents have headed off for  well-deserved rest and recreation and many faculty and staff have either traveled to visit family or welcomed houses full of visitors.

travelRick and I were among the travelers. My sister recently moved to Phoenix, and several of us gathered there to inaugurate her new Southwestern home by importing all our Midwestern Thanksgiving traditions. (I’m the official keeper of the family stuffing secrets, and in an excess of enthusiasm made far too much of it. But what else is Thanksgiving for?) While in Phoenix we visited the Desert Botanical Garden and enjoyed a truly magical Chihuly exhibit.  chihuly dbg




What better time than Thanksgiving for me to express how deeply grateful I am to all members of the Sweet Briar community? The love and loyalty of our alumnae sustain us. The creativity, dedication, and excellence of our faculty define us. The energy and skill of our staff support everything we do, every day. And our students — the aspirations and achievements of our students inspire us all and are the reason the rest of us do what we do!

On behalf of Sweet Briar, heartfelt thanks to you all. Now it’s back to campus to finish up the semester — these last couple of weeks before finals will just fly by!