Alumni reflect on growth, long-term connections

Featured Image: Suzy Ralph Brett (‘72) served as Virginia Wesleyan’s
first female class president. Suzy Brett | Courtesy

VWU’s annual Spring Alumni Weekend, held April 14-16, encouraged reflection on changes and illuminated emotional ties. The weekend included celebrations at Shorebreak Pizza and Taphouse, alumni sporting events, a Marlin family picnic and a reception for the first five graduating classes of Virginia Wesleyan. These events provided alumni with an opportunity to reminisce while acknowledging the many changes around campus. 

Many of the events throughout the weekend specifically celebrated the “First Five Pioneers,” who graduated between 1966 and 1971 from what was then Virginia Wesleyan College (VWC).

Married couple Suzy Ralph Brett (‘72) and Tom Brett (‘71) connected at Virginia Wesleyan 52 years ago and enthusiastically return to campus for alumni events.

“A lot of us met here and got married. I bet there’s 10 couples here that have been married over 50 years,” Suzy Ralph Brett said. The two not only found love, but a longstanding community that became integral to the foundation of their futures.

“We were such a small college. We could be strong leaders while we were here. Presidents of our classes and volleyball captains,” Suzy Ralph Brett said.

In her time at Virginia Wesleyan, Suzy Ralph Brett trailblazed as the college’s first ever female class president. She overcame the pushback from the institution, which told her she could be vice president because a man had to occupy the president role. 

Suzy Ralph Brett said, “I was vice president of my senior class in high school, and my goal was to get to college president. So I did.”

She spoke more on the college’s early inequality and how the student body worked to reshape gender-based rules. One example she provided was the curfew only imposed on the women. 

“We went to the student activity welfare committee a lot. It used to be, at 11 o’clock, all the girls had to be back in campus. The boys didn’t have to. They thought if they controlled the women, the boys would follow,” Suzy Ralph Brett said.

She said that each floor also had “room moms,” who were women generally in their 60s living in halls among the students.

Her husband, Tom Brett, also reflected on the vast changes Virginia Wesleyan has undergone. 

“Virtually no one had cars so we were a captive audience here. We were on 300 acres, out where the entrance is, there was an old farmhouse that had a couple of horses that were fenced in. The library wasn’t there yet. Behind the school where the circular driveway comes around, there was nothing but cornfields there. There was no public transportation here. Our only means of getting off of campus was the school had an old gray stick shift station wagon that the students could check out and that was our only way off campus. We could sign the car out, we had to tell them where we were going,” Tom Brett said.

He listed more differences such as the girls needing to sign in and out of their dormitories and the dinner dress code that required boys to wear coats and ties and girls to wear dresses. “We’re talking old school South,” Brett said.

Suzy Brett | Courtesy
Suzy Ralph Brett (‘72) and Tom Brett (‘71), during their time at VWC.

The couple acknowledged that these experiences were commonplace at the time. Still, they view their time at Virginia Wesleyan through a positive lens because of the community atmosphere that outshined all drawbacks. 

Suzy Ralph Brett said, “We’re so proud of it. It’s come so far. I mean, we were here literally when there was nothing.”

However, Tom Brett brought up how in some instances, less could be more. He explained that because of this small village atmosphere, every student would know every classmate, professor and administrator personally.

“My first year here at the school I played basketball and I severely sprained my ankle while playing. The next morning, there was a knock on my door and it was the president of the college,” Tom Brett said, “He said ‘I understand that you injured yourself last night, I can see that you’re having a hard time. If you need, we will arrange to have meals brought to your room, and if you can’t get to class, we’ll have someone take notes for you until you’re able to get up and move around.’”

Alumna Ruth Ann Hurt Klyver attended Virginia Wesleyan in 1968 and 1969, and her husband graduated from VWC in 1972. “I met some really nice friends. I came from a very small town so it introduced me to a lot of different backgrounds,” Klyver said.

Klyver said that most of her classmates were in military families and she envied how much they traveled. In turn, they told her that she had been lucky to grow up staying in one place. 

Klyver met and married her husband during her time in college, her maid-of-honor being a friend from VWC whom she remained connected with. 

Alumni Patty McGhee Singletary Brown and Julie Medcalf Bystrom were roommates at VWC from 1968 to 1970. While both finished their degrees later at ODU, they fondly remembered their time at Virginia Wesleyan and the time they spent together. 

Patty remarked on how different the campus is now. She recalled that when she started college, the campus consisted of two single-gender dorm halls, a cafeteria and a row of classrooms beneath the dorm rooms. 

The former roommates said that policies and rules have changed since they were students.

Brown recalled that a professor once kicked her out of math class for wearing shorts. “If I’d only been gutsy enough I would’ve gone to the bathroom, taken them off and come back in. But I wasn’t that gutsy back then,” Brown said. 

Brown and Bystrom’s friendship continued well beyond their years as roommates, and they said it is those kinds of friendships that draw them back to VWU. “In college we were thrown into living together, so most of the people in our class got to be really good friends and we’ve even gotten together recently,” Brown said. 

After their time at VWC, both Brown and Bystrom went on to accomplish many personal and professional goals.

Alumna Karen Hughes (‘71) said, “Virginia Wesleyan helped me to become an independent person. I grew up in a tight knit family and I wanted to go home… I ended up graduating and became independent of my parents.” 

She recalled her time in college and the personal connections with professors that Virginia Wesleyan offered. When Hughes was first here as an 18-year-old, Dr. Lawrence Hultgren, a professor of Philosophy, who still teaches here nearly fifty years later, was around twenty-one years old. 

Hughes is committed to staying connected to VWU. “I love seeing the new buildings and everything, I love to see that it’s growing but it’s mainly friends. These are friends that we made fifty years ago and some of them we’re still in touch with,” Hughes said.

Director of Enrollment for the Batten Honors College Brooke Novkovic is an alumna from the class of 2018, which helped run the Marlin Family Picnic during alumni weekend. 

Novkovic received her associate’s degree at a community college and transferred to Virginia Wesleyan after realizing the style of a big public university didn’t suit her.

“I felt like part of the family here more so than in other areas of education. I would say what drew me especially was the one on one between the faculty and the students. They know your name and are invested in what you’ll be doing in your future, they’re also invested in you being successful in your time here and beyond,” Novkovic said. 

Despite attending the university more recently, she’s noticed changes since her time as a student. Since President Miller took over, Novkovic said the campus has grown immensely in not only facilities and classrooms, but also opportunities for students.

Similarly to other alumni, Novkovic spoke of the connections she made at VWU and how they have transcended her time as a student. “Once I transitioned to working in the enrollment office my favorite memory is, during my first week Dr. Wansink just came over and popped into my office and I didn’t even know he knew I was working here,” Novkovic said. “I felt like he was invested when I was in his class but on top of that, there was the fact that he wanted to see how I was doing afterwards. It was just so nice that he wanted to know how I was getting along and how I was enjoying it and offering support too.”

Alumni continue to return to campus for employment, celebrations and even continued involvement in the arts, allowing past generations to influence the experiences of current students.

As a piece of advice for current and incoming Marlin community members, Suzy Ralph Brett said, “Make connections with friends. Don’t lose track of each other. Live a good story. Make everything momentous.”

By Breanne Bessette

& Lily Reslink