When I learned of the Board’s decision to close Sweet Briar College, I was hit with a hard punch to my gut and hollowness in my chest. It wasn’t my alma mater—at least not my “academic” one, but Sweet Briar is, in a way, a “nourishing mother” to me because I’m from Amherst County. Sweet Briar was my first introduction to true academia and liberal arts. I went to preschool and kindergarten on the grounds. I spent winters sledding with my friends on the sloping hills. I had nightmares about Daisy, ghosts, and the “Screaming Statue.” I practiced dance in the studios, went to prom in Prothro Hall, attended performances and had my art displayed in Babcock Performing Arts Center, and explored STEM at a girls’ science camp. To imagine my home without Sweet Briar seems impossible.
I saw the faces of the girls after they had heard the news. Pure, raw anguish and confusion burned on their brows. Tears filled their eyes as if something much more horrific had happened—a school shooting, perhaps. Though no student lives were lost that day, there was an announcement of death even if in the form of a century old institution closing its doors because of “insurmountable financial challenges.” And that death is no less tragic to those who know and love Sweet Briar.
My first thought after hearing about Sweet Briar’s closing might have been nostalgia for my childhood where much of it was spent on that beautiful campus, but after seeing the girls’ faces, I felt an even deeper compassion towards them. Because all I could think was “What if it was my Alma Mater?” That is, what if now or while I had been a student, The College of William and Mary had up and announced at the beginning of March that they would be closing in 6 short months? That I would need to reapply somewhere else to continue my studies? That I wouldn’t be able to attend homecoming with all my fellow alumni that fall? That I would be separated from my friends and colleagues, professors and mentors? That I would need to start over at a new institution and learn to love somewhere else when I had already found my home? As a member of William & Mary’s Tribe, I know what it’s like to be consumed with love for your academic institution. We call it “Tribe Pride,” and it isn’t something that vanishes when you graduate. It isn’t just a privilege of enrolled students. It’s a part of who you become as a result of immersing yourself in the culture of William and Mary. For example, I’m not a big sports fan. And I really don’t enjoy basketball, but with W&M playing in the CAA tournament this past weekend, I was watching the games and rooting for my school. Because it’s home.
After I told someone where I went to school once, they snarkily remarked, “Oh the old Colonial hamster wheel, huh? How do you like that?” I was appalled! Yes, William and Mary is an academically intense school known for its stressed out students and suicides, but NO ONE but members of the Tribe get to criticize it that way. Because while we know the pain, we also know the love for our Alma Mater.
I seem to have digressed into a “Hail William & Mary” spiel, but see, that’s the point! I love my school. And those Sweet Briar girls love theirs just as much. It’s their home, whether they are a freshman or from the Class of ’62. And they’ll fight for what’s theirs even if the Board won’t.
So now we have #SaveSweetBriar and SavingSweetBriar.com and a lawyer hired on to the case and over $2 million pledged in support of keeping the school open and over 500 women confused as to how to proceed. And I don’t really know where I stand. From my compassion and nostalgia for the school and fear of the economic impact it’s closing would have on my home area, I want Save Sweet Briar to succeed. But I’m also always skeptical and I want to believe in the good intentions of leadership—like the Board of Directors had to have a good reason for closing, right? It had to be impossible even with the help of alumnae, right? I fear for the people involved in Save Sweet Briar, that all that time and effort and pledge money will come to no good—nothing but burst hopes. But I also want them to succeed. To show the world that grassroots campaigns can work. That the Internet is a powerful tool. That Sweet Briar, academia, women’s education matters to people and that’s enough to keep it open.
I want it to be enough because if Sweet Briar can save their school like a plot out of a Hallmark Saturday Night Special then maybe, any girl can fight for what she wants and win.
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