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Alumni Spotlight: Sandy Barbour '77

Written by Director of Alumni Relations Carrie MacVean Grimes '91 for the Possibilities Issue of The Bridge (abridged)
Perched comfortably on a settee in her cozy, yet elegant offices at the Bryce Jordan Center's impressive facilities in bucolic Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour '77 smiles coyly when asked about the ways in which her humble beginnings as a field hockey player on the muddy fields along Maple Avenue have shaped her phenomenal career in collegiate athletics over the last forty years.

The Tools to Make Her Mark

Growing up as the daughter of Naval aviator Henry and avid community volunteer Nancy, Barbour and her family moved every three years, calling Virginia, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Belgium (among others) home along the way. These globe-trotting adventures brought the family back to Annapolis from Brussels in 1974, when Sandy enrolled at Severn as a sophomore. Among other valuable lessons, a military childhood taught Barbour how to navigate transitions and find her way socially in new settings.

“You can't be shy, you have to make friends. When I moved to Severn from Europe in 1974, I joined the first class of girls at Severn who had been together for years…I walked into a group of folks who knew each other really well.” Barbour credits her strong upbringing by lovingly firm parents, along with her immense passion for sports, with equipping her with the tools she needed to make her mark at Severn and beyond. “Did sports help me make friends? Absolutely.”

A Foundation of Community

While the Severn of the '70s may have appeared on the surface to be vastly different from our school today, Barbour reflected with nostalgia upon the enduring characteristics and values of this community.
“My experiences at Severn academically and athletically were such that we weren't just classmates or teammates. The bonds and closeness created by athletics built an affinity for community. All of the most important people in my life at school were teachers and coaches. Thanks to them, I discovered who I was. Karen Quarles (hockey and basketball coach/PE teacher) and Don Wood (softball coach/science teacher) stand out as people who really influenced me.”
Having the anchor of teacher-coach role models at Severn created a sense of accountability for students in all facets of school life. The teacher-coach, long considered an exemplar of independent school pedagogical practice, is known for its unique dual function in the school community, allowing adults to inspire and connect with students through universal values of practice, commitment, teamwork, personal responsibility, time management, risk-taking and integrity. The athletic field serves as another classroom space where lessons are experienced emotionally and intellectually. Barbour's eyes twinkle when she reminisces about her teacher-coach Don Wood, “Coach Wood was 'the guy'— he was so hard on us! He held us accountable in the classroom and on the field. Accountability is key. Why have rules if you're not going to hold kids accountable to them?”

Barbour also recalls her Severn teammates as important sources of inspiration.“Upperclassmen like Joni Adrian Morgan '75 and Betty Waters Phipps '75 were good students and accomplished athletes who I really looked up to…watching them leave Severn and go off to college was inspiring.”

Barbour believes that Severn's small community was key to keeping students on track while still allowing for risk-taking. She remembers there being an intrinsic understanding that “we were in this small community that had safety nets set up for us…we got to try our wings out and if we crash landed, there was somebody there to pick us up and dust us off and send us on our merry way.”
“Look at sport today — all the ways in which it serves as a bridge to a healing moment, a place of unity instead of separation, love instead of hate. Sport is really, really powerful. For young kids it's a place to be a part of something bigger than you. Creating life lessons, bonds, friendships, finding commonalities in unlikely places. Sport is a place where we learn that it doesn't matter what our differences are…we are a team with a goal in mind. If you can play, you can play.”


Love This and Want More?

Click here to read more about Barbour’s journey beyond Severn, from her years as a student at Wake Forest University to her tenure as athletic director at Big Ten powerhouse Penn State.

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