Saving Sweet Briar

It’s been a rough week.  Last Tuesday, within a single hour, I said goodbye to my wonderful canine friend (which I’m not quite ready to write about yet) and got some shocking and heartbreaking news — my alma mater, Sweet Briar College, would be closing this summer.

“Shocking and heartbreaking” might seem like a bit of an overstatement when describing the closing of a school, especially one I haven’t attended in nearly 20 years and haven’t visited in almost 7.  But Sweet Briar is not merely an educational institution, and its closing is not just the routine or inevitable result of gradual shifts in educational trends.  It is my second home (or, perhaps, now that I live in Vienna, my third).  Dan & I met and were married there.  Dan’s father taught there for many years.  I made many dear friends while I was there.  I learned more about the world and about myself there than I had any idea I needed to learn.  And I received one hell of an academic education, too.

Sweet Briar is a special place.  It is one of a dwindling number of women’s colleges.  Besides being a single-sex college, it is southern, rural and extremely small.  It carries with it an old reputation of debutantes and snobbery — once probably valid but long since left behind.  Those with only a passing notion of Sweet Briar may dismiss it as a “finishing school”, but in doing so only reveal how outdated their information is.


Sweet Briar is so much more than those labels.  Like so many of my fellow alumnae, I never thought that I would end up at Sweet Briar, or at any women’s college.  I wasn’t “girly”.  I liked boys.  I was a liberal and distanced myself from anything with the label of “southern”.  I was a bright, hardworking kid, and I wanted to put an impressive (possibly Ivy League) name on my CV.  I also didn’t have a lot to spend on college.  When I first heard of Sweet Briar, I dismissed it completely, even though my best friend had fallen in love with it.  I was not interested.  It was not what I wanted.

And yet … the more I learned, the more it was.  The photos of the campus in the brochures were stunning.  There was a thriving equestrian program where I would be able to get actual college credit for my passion.  The class sizes were small.  And, they really seemed to want me there.  From there, more than anywhere else, I was contacted — by alumnae, current students, admissions staff.  I was courted.  I went to visit, and (like so many of my fellow alumnae) THAT was the moment when everything changed.  The campus was stunning — like something from a movie.  The students were friendly — not just to me, but to each other.  The students and the staff chatted together like friends in the cafeteria.  The classes were small … and intimidating, but for all of the right reasons.  The professors asked questions AND THERE WAS NOWHERE TO HIDE.  I saw girls — women — step up and speak out in a way I had never seen before, confidently, respectfully and passionately.  I was impressed and a little awed.  And, suddenly, I was seriously considering a women’s college.

I applied to Sweet Briar, but I was never one for half-measures — I also applied (and was accepted to) 10 other schools.  To most, I got significant scholarships.  There was at least one school on that list that I was sure I was going to attend.  It had everything I wanted.  But then I went to visit, and no matter what my head told me, my heart compared every bit of it to Sweet Briar, and it came up lacking in every way except for its name recognition.  As for Sweet Briar, the financial aid and scholarships they offered were impressive, but not enough.  I was surprised to feel so sad when I called my admissions counsellor to tell her that I couldn’t even consider coming because of finances.  And I was beyond amazed when she called me back with a better offer.   In the end, I narrowed my choices down to 2 — both women’s colleges — and no one was more surprised than I was.  I let my heart decide, and it chose Sweet Briar.  It was one of the best choices I ever made.

It’s not that every moment was perfection.  I had times when I questioned my decision (including a big part of my sophomore year when I seriously considered transferring elsewhere), but the good parts were so worth the struggles.  The students really were kind and welcoming.  The classes really were tiny and rigorous.  The professors really did get to know you — I saw them in the cafeteria, out on walks around campus, and went to dinner at their homes (and if you missed a class they’d call to see how you were doing).  The campus really was picture-postcard perfect all the time.  I really did get to ride for course credit.  The traditions, which seemed odd and a bit antiquated at first, became precious to me, and included me in a long line of brave, intelligent women who had come before me.  I made some amazing friends, and I became one of those thoughtful, confident, educated women who didn’t hesitate to open her mouth and speak her mind.  I loved my college years and I value my Sweet Briar education tremendously.  I have no doubt that I made the right choice, and given the opportunity, I would go back and do it all over again.

But that was almost 20 years ago.

Last Tuesday, seemingly out of the blue, the President of the college announced that the Board of Directors had voted unanimously to close the school, effective late August of this year.  Just like that, this place I hold so dear was dying.  I’d had no clue this was even up for consideration.  The powerful and passionate alumnae network had not been told that there were dire straits.  We were all taken completely by surprise by the announcement, which was put to us as a done deal.  Apparently the college’s enrollment and financials had been on a downward trajectory for years, and, according to the president (sorry — interim president, who has been on the job only 6 months), there was no way to recover.  The school was doomed and the decision had been made to bow out gracefully while the going was still good, leaving students to find another place to finish their education (or even to start it, as acceptance letters for next fall had already gone out), and leaving faculty and staff facing impending unemployment (and in some cases with losing their homes).  I felt as if I were losing a close friend, someone I didn’t even know was ailing.  It was like a bomb went off in my brain.  I was devastated, shocked, confused and angry.

But, here’s the thing.  Remember those confident, intelligent, outspoken women who knocked my socks off when I came to visit the school?  Sweet Briar has been turning us out for DECADES.  And within a day, the shock and tears had made way for outrage and determination.  We’re not ready to say goodbye.  There are thousands of strong, capable women out there who love Sweet Briar, and we’re willing to fight to keep her alive.  There is work to be done, there are questions to be asked, and there are sisters to be helped.  This is what we DO.  This is who Sweet Briar trained us to BE.  This is not where this story ends.


Dino Lingo

So first, in the interest of full disclosure, I want to mention that Dino Lingo provided me with their product for free in exchange for a review.  I went into this to do an honest review, trying to maintain the perspective of a paying customer.

I’ve never done a sponsored post before.  But this product was so perfectly suited to our family (and to my blog audience) that I had to give it a try.  Also, the links to Dino Lingo on this page are affiliate links.

094Dino Lingo is a language learning program for children.  I had never heard of it, but the first thing that impressed me when the company contacted me was the excellent customer service.  Every other time that I’ve gotten a message from someone asking me to review something, it has come as a generic form email (which is a lot of the reason why I’ve never followed up before).  In contrast, Kathryn from Dino Lingo had done her homework — she had read my blog, and understood why this would be a good fit for us.  And the excellent communication and customer service didn’t stop there.  Once I decided to give it a try, we had several thoughtful conversations about which language program to choose.  We decided against German, since my boys are already pretty experienced with it, and the Dino Lingo program is intended for beginners.  I eliminated Spanish for the same reason, and French because, though the kids don’t speak it, I know enough that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to gauge the effectiveness of the teaching in the program myself.  We decided to try something completely new to the whole family — we went with Russian.  (I was impressed by the range of options available.  I expected a fairly standard French/Spanish/German/Italian/Mandarin selection.  It is much more extensive than that.  They have over 40 options.  Our final choice came down to Gaelic and Russian.  We went with Russian because the boys often encounter Russian children on the playground, and they can’t communicate with them, which is always a bummer.)

104So, our choice was made and we waited.  We didn’t wait long, though — our package arrived just 8 business days later, which is impressive for an international shipment.  The boys didn’t know what was in the package, but they were so excited to find out!  (Dino Lingo very kindly included a second stuffed dinosaur toy, which kept the opening of the package from spurring a fight, earning them even more bonus points for me.)

Our set included 5 DVDs, a set of flashcards, a coloring book, a vocabulary book, posters, a progress chart (with stickers), a music CD and 2 dinosaur toys.  The kids were immediately intrigued, and, after running around for 5 minutes with the dinosaurs, wanted to put on the first DVD.  So we did.


We put the first DVD on . . . and I was initially a little concerned.  My kids are so used to interactive apps on the iPad and the iPhone, and TV shows with really slick presentations.  This is a DVD based program, so it isn’t interactive.  The graphics are cute, but I wasn’t sure they’d capture the boys’ attention.  I was worried that they’d get bored with it quickly and lose interest.


I was wrong.

Not only were they completely captivated by the characters and the graphics, they were totally wrapped up in learning the language.  They were sitting on the floor, talking back to the video, right from the start.  And when it was over, they asked to watch it again.  And again.  By the end of that first night, we were all talking about the Russian we’d learned already.

123Liam loves the flash cards.  He doesn’t play with them in the conventional way (which is probably good, because he’s learned more than I have, so I couldn’t quiz him).  Instead, he spreads them out on the floor, picks up the ones he knows, and tells me the words.  In Russian!  His favorite is “monkey” (обезьяна).  The flash cards would be more useful if I were doing a better job of learning Russian myself (or if we had a native speaker we could work with).  But he’s figured out a way to be quite entertained.  (And hey, he’s 3, and basically teaching himself Russian, so I can’t criticize.)

We received our program about 6 weeks ago, and with the end of the school year this week, and all the craziness that leads up to that, we haven’t used it all that much in the past couple of weeks.  But the kids are STILL talking about it.  They still remember what they’ve learned.  Remarkably, their interest in learning Russian outlasted their interest in the stuffed toys that came with the set.  I honestly didn’t expect that.  They want to learn more, and they’re so proud of what they know already.  We only recently got in to looking at the printed materials (aside from the flash cards) — most of our use has come from the DVDs.  But the kids are starting to get interested in the posters, too.  (They’re quizzing each other on the words associated with the pictures.)

(Actually, after our time with the program, I have only one criticism.  On the first DVD, there is one graphic of a happy face turning around and showing its backside while giggling.  It’s not egregious, but slightly rude, and it’s one thing I wish my kids hadn’t learned from the DVD!)


We didn’t buy the set, so we’re extra lucky — it came to us as a gift.  But, I can honestly say that I *would* buy it.  I wish that we’d had something like the Dino Lingo set in German before we’d moved here.  It would have been a leg up, and a great start to our overseas adventure . . . for all of us.  I’m truly impressed by how much my kids have learned, and how much they’re enjoying it.  It’s been more effective than I expected it to be.  Way to go, Dino Lingo, and thanks for sharing your product with us!

Regrets in education

I excelled in school.  I was a great student — bright, enthusiastic, engaged, interested.  Generally, my teachers loved me, and I did very well.  Mostly, academic achievement came pretty easily — I studied, all the time, but when I studied, I learned, and I got good grades.  Only rarely did I particularly struggle with something, and very rarely did I come across a subject that was a challenge for me when I was putting in the effort required to learn it.

I took advanced classes when they were available.  In high school, I always wished my grade point average was higher (I graduated with a 3.86 — and we didn’t get “extra points” for taking tough classes).  In college, I pursued a double major, in philosophy and in physics.  I studied physics because it was my intention to go on to study astronomy (one summer position as an astronomy research assistant convinced me that it wasn’t for me) and I studied philosophy because I like to write.  In truth, I studied both of these because I was good at them.  They were (relatively) challenging subjects that I succeeded in easily.

Professionally, I’ve never applied either major directly to any of my work (although I used a lot of the math required for physics when I worked as a software engineer, and writing code was something I learned to do for my advanced math and physics courses in college).  But, my greatest regret in my education is not that I studied subjects I never “really used”, but that I studied things I had an aptitude for.  I spent most of my academic energy focused on things I learned easily.  (I thought that was what I was supposed to do.)  I studied difficult subjects, but I focused on those that worked the same way my brain works.

Instead, I should have focused on things that I struggled with — like languages — when I was in a focused learning environment with excellent teachers and tons of time to work through my struggles.  In school, when I found a subject that was a true challenge — one that I could study intently and still not learn easily — I would finish the course and then give up on that subject, in favor of things that came more easily to me.  Now, in the “real world”, time to learn and study is spare and has to be fit in amongst larger responsibilities.  I’m still not great at learning languages, but now I have neither the access to the kinds of classes I once did, nor the option of bailing after a tough semester.  It’s sink or swim, and I find myself paddling pretty hard with precious little progress.

I had access to amazing teachers and wonderful resources, from the time I started school.  Looking back, I wish I had been more willing to struggle, and perhaps to fail.  The fact that I failed so rarely is a sign that I wasn’t working hard enough.  I had such a great environment in which to learn — I wish I had understood what a golden moment it was, and taken full advantage.  I wish I’d gotten all the help I could have to learn the things I’m not good at.  I was so focused on succeeding, on getting good grades, and on setting myself up for success in the “next step” (whatever that was at the time) that I kind of missed the point.  Education is for trying, education is for stretching, and that means that sometimes, education is for failing.  Education means learning HOW to learn even more than passing tests.  Education means learning that struggle, or setback, or even failure aren’t fatal.  When I had dedicated, thoughtful, kind teachers available to me, I should have made more use of them.  I should have bugged them.  I should have asked more questions, and taken more risks and allowed myself permission to feel stupid and make mistakes.  I was too busy trying to be perfect.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with asking dumb questions and making mistakes, but in the “real world” it can be so hard to find those valuable opportunities to learn from great teachers.  I’ve had a great education, and I feel fortunate for the opportunities that I’ve had.  But I wish I had made more of them.  As my kids get older, and start their own educational path, I want to be mindful of what’s really important, and how much there is to learn.  So much of it is a challenge, but the challenge is where the good stuff is.