As a new academic year is ushered in at Sweet Briar College, a new president is at the helm.
Meredith Woo, hired in February, joined the all-women’s school this summer. On Wednesday, she addressed the student body at the opening convocation of Sweet Briar’s 112th academic year.
Throughout her address to students, faculty and staff, Woo outlined her goals for Sweet Briar, which includes rethinking the college’s core curriculum to create modern leaders with skills and ethics; to craft great communicators; and to enhance 21st century literacy in research and technology.
Woo also expressed a desire to enhance diversity and the international draw of Sweet Briar.
“To me, excellence is diversity, and diversity is excellence,” Woo said.
She emphasized cognitive diversity: a different way of imagining, thinking and solving problems.
Though Woo spoke of the future, she also reflected on Sweet Briar’s past and the ties alumnae have maintained over the years, including returning to their alma mater to beautify the campus.
At the beginning of August, a total of 168 volunteers, mostly alumnae, returned to campus to paint, prune, pull weeds and work together to prepare the college for an incoming crop of students.
“You are the future for which these women worked very hard for three weeks,” Woo said.
In closing, Woo noted while many parts comprise SBC, there is a unity of one.
“Sweet Briar is a small college, cunningly made but complex,” Woo told the audience gathered for convocation. “It has many parts and many constituencies — the students, faculty, staff, alumnae, friends — but we are also remarkably one, united in our belief in what Sweet Briar stands for, and fulfillment of the vision of the founder to become women of consequence, ‘useful members’ of our society. I look forward to phenomenal years ahead, working closely with you.”
Woo’s background in academia includes a stint as the Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia from 2008 until 2014. Before arriving at Sweet Briar, she served as director of the Higher Education Support Program for the Open Society Foundations, which works to enhance digital education and extend higher education opportunities to refugees.
Woo replaced former SBC President Phillip Stone, who came out of retirement in July 2015 to lead an effort to restore Sweet Briar after the campus nearly closed. Stone retired a second time in May.
Marina Biel, Student Government Association president, also addressed her fellow students.
She encouraged them to challenge their norms, be open minded and encourage their sisters.
“These relationships will last you forever — just ask any of our alumnae,” Biel said.
To her fellow seniors, she noted they had endured much throughout their time in Sweet Briar, a campus that nearly closed in 2015 after prior administrators claimed it had insurmountable financial challenges before it was saved by a legal challenge and millions of dollars in alumnae donations.
“We’ve been through so much together; we deserve a calm and enjoyable year,” Biel said.
Following the convocation, students, staff and faculty were treated to ice cream and a photo booth outside of Babcock Fine Arts Center to celebrate the beginning of the semester and the unveiling of a new marketing campaign to promote Sweet Briar to potential students.
According to a copy of the marketing materials provided by the college, the emphasis is on confidence, courage and grit as key features of the Sweet Briar brand. Highlighting students and alumnae, the marketing materials show SBC graduates as leaders and women of consequence.