While Aunt Becky was being incriminated for buying her daughters’ way into USC, my colleague and I went on a ten-colleges-in-four-days whirlwind tour. In the midst of driving past lots of cows and as the scandal became breaking news, one little college emerged that seems to be doing everything just right.  

In a world where parents are paying top dollar to get their children into designer colleges, we had the pleasure of an in-depth visit to Sweet Briar College, an all women’s school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. This is a school that almost closed, but their dedicated alumnae came to the rescue, and now the school is on an upswing.

We started with an invitation for dinner at President Meredith Woo’s historic house, where we learned that she had spearheaded the charge by refocusing the college’s core curriculum to foster flexible, ethical and critical thinkers who are ready to take on leadership roles in almost any field that you can imagine.  

There is nothing that the leaders of this college have not thought of, from making partnerships with corporate giants like Google, which offers students professional certifications in coding, to utilizing the local artist colony across the way to give guest lectures and teach courses. We had the opportunity to meet with impressive professors: a married couple who have collectively published 11 highly acclaimed novels, the environmental engineer who is studying freshwater systems on the campus’s two lakes, the fun loving life scientists who mentor our future doctors and vets, and the art historian who is bringing the college’s small collection of Rembrandts and Picassos to life with evening chats over cookies.  

This is a college of “we can do that”: Beekeeping, check, 18 miles of running and riding trails, check, an impressive equestrian facility check, check; and coming to campus soon – sustainable wine making. All of these initiatives create opportunities for students to be interested and interesting during job and graduate school interviews. After four years at SBC, women will feel empowered and they will certainly have unique stories to share.

The beauty of our journey is highlighted by the fact that focusing only on prestige brought individuals to unethical and illegal behaviors. On the other side of the spectrum, a college that almost closed was resuscitated because of the loyalty and vision of alumnae. SBC will bring all who choose, into leadership positions in the 21st century.

The rest of our tour was filled mostly with small and special jewels that offer endless opportunities to learn. We toured impressive music conservatories and music education programs at Gettysburg College, Lebanon Valley College, and Shenandoah University, sustainability efforts through Dickinson College’s EcoLeague membership, the wealth of opportunities afforded at the ever growing James Madison University, and the public school that serves as a lab for future teachers at Shippensburg. We witnessed why Lynchburg University is now in the book, Colleges That Change Lives, and we saw Thomas Jefferson’s visions come to life at UVA.

It takes courage for students to forge their own paths by looking beyond the list of familiar schools. On the plus side, they may discover the potential of hidden treasures in our vast world of academia that will propel them as learners to new heights. After touring colleges, passing cows, and listening to the controversy, we feel even more strongly that going to college in the US is a privilege, no matter the brand name.

— Nicole Oringer, Founder