Sweet Briar: One Year, Pt. 2

I want to make clear about the post above that I do not feel silenced by anyone currently working at Sweet Briar. They have been excellent about listening to my suggestions and concerns. If I have a complicated relationship with some of my fellow alumnae–well, that’s always been the case. It’s probably as difficult for them to have a dyed-in-the-wool pinko commie in their midst as it is for me to be grapple with hard-nosed libertarians on a semi-regular basis.

And aren’t we all so fucking lucky to have that? To have an inclusive community, despite our differences in philosophy, that promotes the education and personal development of women? That still serves that mission?

I can’t believe it sometimes.

Because that’s the thing. As much as I worry about Sweet Briar, I have this tremendous amount of hope, for and because of Sweet Briar. I have hope not just for our community, but for other colleges and universities and even the world. Not only can a group of determined people join forces–despite their many differences–for something they care about, they can overcome cynicism and naysayers and accomplish something almost unprecedented.

They can say something matters, not because it’s going to be a great financial success, but because its purpose and mission help make the world better. It’s true that without lots of money, Sweet Briar would not have been saved. But the money was only a piece of what saved it–the means by which we could convince other people to take action.

My exceptionally wise older sister (by birth–she’s an honorary Vixen, though) made a wonderful point not long after the settlement was announced:

Love saved Sweet Briar.

On the surface it’s a totally saccharine idea and my eighteen-year-old self surely is scoffing somewhere, but don’t forget, we defeated cynicism, if only temporarily. Love saved Sweet Briar. Not just love for the trees and the mountains and the beautiful old buildings. Love for the people there. Love for each other. Love for the idea of Sweet Briar. For the possibilities of Sweet Briar. The future of Sweet Briar.

If we didn’t love that, that future, we could have shrugged and said, “Well, we’ll always have our memories and reunions. The old girl had a good run.”

Instead, March-June 2015 will always be something of a blur for so many of us because that love of Sweet Briar became an all-consuming need to save Sweet Briar. And I’ve said before that we had our doubts and that is true. There were a lot of bad days during those 3+ months. We were not always as kind and understanding as we should have been with each other or with the people who questioned us or with those who didn’t stand with us the way we wanted. It was an ugly, impossibly difficult ordeal at times, and the only thing that got us through it was that love.

I’ve said before that it can be a hard thing for outsiders to understand–this attachment to Sweet Briar. I’m not sure we can always articulate it ourselves. The closest I can come today, I think, is this:

You all know the story of my first year at Sweet Briar, how I strongly considered leaving, and ultimately what led me to stay. Very early on in that process, I heard a lot of speeches. Two stand out, not for their content but for the feeling they produced. One was by the college’s President then and another by my first-year dorm RA. Both were about the legacy of Sweet Briar women, about those who had come before us and those who would come after us.

Now, people give those sorts of speeches at colleges all the time and I imagine they often fall flat. But I’d already had something of the Sweet Briar experience at that point–from the alumna I met online to the infinite number of people who had been warm and welcoming to me that first week to the memorials on Monument Hill–and I felt connected. Like I was really part of Sweet Briar, even for being there so short of time. And whatever ups and downs I had in college, that never changed. I had a claim on the place and it on me.

What makes Sweet Briar special isn’t the campus or the curriculum or the history. It’s the community, a living, evolving group of people. The connection that can stop you in the middle of a conference or a crowded train car or a job interview, that brings that feeling of belonging back to you. It’s that we need not meet or know the next generation of young women who enroll there to love them. We love them unconditionally, not because they resemble us or will do all the same things we did. We love them because of a choice they’re making. A choice to belong to a particular place and tradition. To be the future of something powerful.

Again, this all sounds fucking lofty as hell and probably not a little bit melodramatic and my cynical self will wince at this post later. And, of course, I can only sort of get at what I mean when I talk about Sweet Briar. In some respects, yes, it is just another little liberal arts college for women. But it’s also a group of people who have allowed themselves to care and be moved by a shared idea.

That’s what we fought for–and I genuinely believe that is what we saved.


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