AcademicsJul 13, 2021
— updated Jul 13, 2021
Taking the long view
Sarah Virden on overhauling the schedule during a global pandemic
When she took the role of Director of Academic Counseling, Sarah Virden likely didn’t think the job description included overhauling the MHS academic schedule amid a global pandemic.
But, during her twenty-six years at MHS — twenty-five years as a Main Building resident — “Vird,” as she’s called by many students, has seen just about everything. So, convene a team and create a new schedule for 2020–21in the matter of a few weeks? Sure. (And it will need to be revised again next year, as the School emerges into a post- pandemic world.)
It’s that kind of involvement in our academic program that Sarah most enjoys in her role as Director of Academic Counseling. She started wearing that hat in 2017, after sixteen years as Director of College Counseling. In her new role, Sarah still guides students on their post-MHS plans, but she also uses her vast knowledge of the MHS program and college process to expand her work with students and adults.
The role also includes helping faculty and students navigate the schedule and calendar — an aspect of her job that came in handy when the pandemic forced a move to distance learning for the final weeks of the 2019–20 academic year.
“We knew when we changed the schedule a few years ago that it would need adjustments,” says Sarah. “We were preparing to do that when the pandemic put that work on fast-forward.” Sarah and English Teacher Monica Kirschmann had attended a scheduling workshop in January 2020, with an eye toward adjusting the School’s traditional academic schedule. Instead, the pandemic meant a shift to a schedule that included options for on-campus learning, distance learning, and, at times, a combination of the two [see “Adapting Our Schedule,” from the Fall 2020 Miss Hall’s Magazine].
“I can always go to her office to vent or take a nap or if I just need a snack. She bakes the best cinnamon rolls, probably has the meanest cat ever, and is the queen of schedules and Google calendar. Thank you for being like a second mom to me, and I would not want anyone else as the head of my personal team.”
Pietas Nomination, November 2019
It is work Sarah relishes. “I love that this position gives me a view into what’s next for Miss Hall’s, whether it’s through Academic Affairs or teachers getting excited about developing curriculum and seeing what that might mean for our students. I also love connecting with students, talking about possibilities and their personal interests. To get to explore the curriculum with them is a gift.”
In many ways, Sarah sees her role as a bridge between the academic program and the students and their advisors. “I am someone who is taking a 3,000-foot view on ’Here’s where you are, here’s where you want to go, and here’s how to get there,’” she explains. “Because there’s not always one way.”
Sarah’s own MHS path is an interesting one. Her parents, John and Martha Virden, taught at The Hotchkiss School and knew the family of Trudy Hall, then Head of MHS. In the family’s 1993 Christmas letter, Sarah’s mother mentioned Sarah had recently graduated from St. Lawrence University and was looking for a job. Trudy Hall’s mother suggested Sarah visit MHS for some advice.
“I came up in March 1994 to interview and get some advice, and they said, ’We have gaps right now, in residential life and student activities,’” recalls Sarah, who signed on. She joined MHS full-time that fall as Director of Student Activities and Main Building resident. Sarah was Director of Residential Life from 1996 to 1998 and joined the College Counseling Office in 1998. While in College Counseling, she was Assistant Dean of Students from 1998 to 2008 and was named Director of College Counseling in 2001.
During the last quarter century, Sarah has seen the campus expand and modernize, moving from pay telephones in the dorms to telephones in students’ rooms to cell service and internet available throughout campus.
“My first email address ever was at Miss Hall’s,” says Sarah, who has also seen the academic program expand and modernize, moving away from Advanced Placement (AP) courses to new Hallmark courses. “As we have reimagined our academic program and developed a program that is rigorous and full of student choice, we have not been afraid to say that there are different ways to do things and to explore those different ways,” Sarah notes.
That growth mindset and willingness to change is something Sarah loves about Miss Hall’s. There has, she adds, always been room to grow and change, modify, adapt, and re-envision. She has seen it herself for more than two decades. “When I first came to visit, I was promised two months of work,” Sarah recalls. “Two months turned into twenty-six years.” And counting!