My Time @ Sweet Briar College

You’re not going to find another heartbroken lament over the closing of Sweet Briar College in this blog.

There’s been a lot of interesting reading in the wake of last week’s announcement that SBC is closing. I’m having the most “fun” reading personal accounts of upcoming students because they come across as hysterical: sobbing about how their dreams are shattered, their faith broken, they’ve been dreaming about attending for years, no other school will ever be as special and hold that magical place in their heart, they cry themselves to sleep every night.

Well, I already had my educational shakedown and breakdown because of Sweet Briar. Now others can have a turn. Guess what; it’s terrible, but it’s not the end of the world. You’ll find another boyfriend school. Go marathon Gilmore Girls and watch how Rory grows up.

I absolutely hated the college application process and only applied to two schools, Radford University and Sweet Briar College. My dad bought me a giant book of colleges and I just went through the list of ones in my state. Radford has a reputation as a party school but it’s also good for teachers and writers. I estimated that I’d probably be accepted, which I was, and if I’d actually gone there I would have been in the same year as my current roommate. We wouldn’t have even needed luck to meet, as her best friend is one of my oldest friends.

SBC, of course, is good at catching a student’s eye. I think my parents were even more enraptured than I was when we visited on a family event day. Small, private, prestigious – it’s an exclusive club, and an all-girls one at that. Sort of like a Harvard for southern belles. I felt like Hermione Granger visiting an American version of Hogwarts, tinged in historical romanticism. The campus is notoriously beautiful. When I pictured my dream college it had old brick buildings, a history steeped in academia, small classes, a place to become An Intellectual, and a community of dedicated professors and fellow students I’d be friends with the rest of my life. Sweet Briar fit all of that.

People scorn Sweet Briar as a finishing school, but it’s nothing as sinister as that. The school is absolutely education-forward; one look at the study abroad programs and STEM programs can tell you that. What I missed on all my starry-eyed visits to campus, and my talks with current students, and interviews with faculty and teachers, is that with a student body well under 1,000, it’s a sorority unto itself. So there was an undercurrent of WASP girls and their pearls, however well-meaning. You’re either in with the clique, or you’re not.

To be absolutely, perfectly frank, I don’t think I was good enough to be accepted as a student in my own right. I was accepted because my parents were willing to pay the almost $50,000 tuition without much financial aid.

I entered Sweet Briar as a freshman the fall of 2004 and in my first semester almost flunked out entirely. A lot of it was my own fault – I have good reading and writing skills but I’m a naturally lazy person. That got me through high school but doesn’t mean a thing in collegiate academia. Some of it was out of my control – I was diagnosed with a lifelong medical condition the summer before starting college. My then-doctor put me on strong medication that takes months to adjust to, and I had to deal with food poisoning symptoms and throwing up blood.

Mostly, because I’m an introvert, I had a very hard time adjusting. It wasn’t about homesickness – I’m just not a joiner. Sweet Briar is a community that I lived in but never joined, and the college was all about community. So I suffered. I would show up at the beginning of the semester for clubs or volunteer work but wouldn’t stay because I never connected with anyone or anything. When finals creeped in and I had to actually work for a good grade, I didn’t have the time or energy for extracurriculars and I just stopped showing up. I didn’t feel any joy or camaraderie participating in any of the school traditions – sing a song, paint a rock, whatever. I thought they were dumb.

I also didn’t realized how secluded the college was. This particular quote from the college president is showing up in a lot of online articles, and it speaks for itself: “We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks.” Freshman weren’t allowed cars when I attended, and I felt trapped. Introverts like to use the party example – we leave after only a few hours to avoid being overloaded and frustrated. Being alone recharges us, and we can keep being social in general. Imagine being stuck at a party for months at a time. Even with better study skills I didn’t fare any better in my second semester.

There were plenty of other things I flat out did not like. I hated being forced to participate in those stupid ‘get-to-know-everyone’ orientation games at the beginning of the semester. (And why did we have guys from the nearby all-men college there?! What happened to an all-female space, free from co-ed intimidations and biases, meant to build up our confidence and our voices? Nothing like being 18, shy, and forced to play Red Rover with a bunch of strangers.) I didn’t like how such a big deal was made about the honor code only to have my favorite travel mug stolen out of the common kitchen. And to this day I hate the high-level science class I had to take, which I’ve mostly blocked out of my mind to keep my sanity. I mostly remember hours-long physics experiments and something about a learning style where you couldn’t look up the answers, you had to discover it for yourself, because then you would understand it better and remember it longer. What b*******.

I also didn’t like how I would get hand-written notecards, years after leaving without graduating, asking sweetly for alumni donations.

I left Sweet Briar feeling like a complete failure. I genuinely enjoy learning but at the time felt like I had no business pretending to be a college student. Even worse I felt like the most horrible daughter in the world, having wasted her parents’ hard-earned and hard-saved money. I thought I had doomed myself to a future of unforgiving low-wage jobs, and that I deserved to be miserable.

It was a learning experience for me, however negative the entire thing was. I can joke now about how it was better to get sick and later have surgery while “only” in community college. I laugh now because I graduated from the four year school one of my best friends graduated from, and we just missed each other. I have the last laugh, it seems, because I was accepted into graduate school and I start this fall.

It’s definitely a shame that women-only colleges seem to be going the way of the dodo. I think we live in an era of increasingly feminist values, and women-only education is not too conservative or a step backward. Yes, the world is co-ed – I don’t see the problem in taking a break from that to concentrate on a degree.

But in this era of damning student loans and futures uncertain, the price of a college education is more important than ever. By law, only private institutions are allowed to be single sex. According to a report by the Woman’s College Coalition, “As a subset of the private college sector, women’s colleges’ key variables (listed above) have a pattern similar to private, co-ed colleges.”

That problem deserves more thought than, “Girls want to attend schools with boys nowadays.”

Look, I’m not experiencing total schadenfreude – I feel sorry for the current students caught completely unaware, particularly the juniors, who are probably going through hell now that they need to transfer. I feel bad for all the teachers and faculty who will be out of a job and might never professionally recover. There’s a campaign to raise funds and keep the school open, so who knows? Sweet Briar College might live on after all.

But ultimately, here’s what I feel:



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