On the surface, at least, the cheerful gathering of Sweet Briar College graduates had all the trappings of an alumnae happy hour: name tags, hugs, introductions and bubbly recollections about the school that shaped who they have become.
But this fundraiser had a grim purpose: to save their beloved school from closure, one dollar at a time. And immediately beneath the smiles, many of the women grappled with the prospect that they would lose the place forever. Just thinking about it made them choke up.
“In my heart, I just feel like Sweet Briar needs to be there,” said Michele Gargano, a 1988 graduate who attributed her liberal arts education at the small, rural school to her success in the pharmaceutical industry.
Officials announced this month that the college would shutter at the end of the school year because of “insurmountable financial challenges,” news that spread shock and grief through the campus and its network of graduates.
But the grief quickly turned into action, mobilizing alumnae to raise money and to investigate the school’s financial situation. Donors have pledged $3.1 million to the cause, and a Web site, Save Sweet Briar, has set a goal of raising $20 million.
Smaller fundraising efforts have sprouted up in the Washington area, where the alumnae chapter includes engineers, entrepreneurs and congressional staffers. The chapter organized the Friday fundraiser happy hour at the Mission restaurant in Dupont Circle, raising $2,100.
Kory Garvis, 26, a 2011 graduate who runs a small handmade jewelry business, peddled her new “Sweet Briar College” line of necklaces, donating the proceeds of the sale to the cause, about $200.
James F. Jones, the college’s president, said dwindling enrollment — which in turn led the school to steeply reduce tuition to try to lure more students — played a role in the decline, highlighting questions about the financial viability of all-women’s liberal arts colleges around the country. Jones said he would need an immediate infusion of $250 million to keep the doors open.
That’s a lot of jewelry and a lot of happy hours. But for dedicated graduates of the school, it’s a worthwhile effort to hold on to a place that helps define them.
On Monday, attorneys for the alliance of faculty and alumnae known as Save Sweet Briar sent a letter demanding the resignation of the Board of Directors and of the university president. In the letter, the attorneys expressed doubt that the school was financially insolvent.
“We are deeply concerned that your clients’ decision to close the College’s door appears to be unwarranted,” the lawyers wrote. A lawyer for the school said he could not comment until after he reviewed the letter.
Founded in 1901, the campus, tucked away in central Virginia, is known as an idyllic setting for an undergraduate education, with riding trails and an equestrian program. Generations of Virginia women have attended the school, drawn by its small classes and gorgeous campus.
Women described a storybook undergraduate experience with a campus that was like a second home. “My heart and soul,” Garvis said.
Classmates became best friends and second families. Professors hosted meals in their homes and turned into lifelong confidants. It also became a refuge for young women who felt out of place in other academic settings.
Katherine Hoffman, 45, a Realtor, is a third-generation Sweet Briar graduate. Her grandmother went to the school, and when she died, her grandfather married another Sweet Briar graduate. And while it was legacy that drew her to the school, it ended up being a perfect fit for Hoffman, who struggled with learning disabilities.
An academic adviser who followed her closely helped her crack the code to studying, giving her advice that enabled her to earn two graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University while working full time.
“I grew up quite shy,” she said. But the school built her confidence: “When you leave the school, you know you can do anything.”
Angelina Peck, 23, was a rebellious teenager who struggled with academics when she arrived at Sweet Briar fresh from school in Cambridge, England. She had just come out to her family as gay, and it was an identity she struggled with when she started college.
While the campus has a reputation as a base for preppy, ponytail-wearing equestrians, Peck said it has been remarkably supportive of all students. It was there, she said, that she finally became comfortable with who she is. She joined the student group GLOW — which stands for “Gay, Lesbian or Whatever” — and the soccer team. She found faculty and classmates very supportive.
“It speaks to the fact that you can be anyone and come to Sweet Briar and grow into who you are,” Peck said. “It’s a place where you can figure out who you are and learn to love that about yourself.”
Peck and others have started to digest the possibility that the place that has become part of who they are could be lost forever. But that has not stopped her from trying.
For Peck, her time with the Sweet Briar Vixens soccer team, a Division III squad that lost a lot of games by large margins, has come to symbolize the ongoing long-odds fight to save the school.
“Playing sports, the odds were always stacked against us,” she said of the soccer squad, which was often so shorthanded that there were no substitutes. “It doesn’t matter how little hope you have of succeeding, you still show up . . . you do what you can.”