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Sarah Jane Dinan Top Student Focuses on Government and Foreign Affairs, French, Russian -- and Quilting

May 4, 2001-- When you think "quilting," a few stereotypes come to mind: grandmotherly types gathered in a rural church hall, sewing and catching up on the latest gossip.

Meet Sarah Jane Dinan, stereotype-buster. She’s a brilliant young woman -- one University of Virginia professor called her "the best student I have ever had" -- with a top-1-percent class ranking and 10 A-pluses on her record as she pursues a dual degree in French and government and foreign affairs. She grew up in populous Northern Virginia, attended a private high school -- and she is president of the U.Va. Quilting Club.

Dinan has been sewing since she was 7, when she "learned from little old ladies at the Woodlawn Plantation," a historic estate near her Alexandria home that offered lessons. She sewed and quilted at home, even as she built a stellar academic record at Georgetown Visitation School in Washington.

"It is something concrete I get to do after school work," she said. "It’s so nice to sit down for two hours and make a skirt -- then it’s done, and I can wear it."

Still, the needle and thread was mostly a solo pursuit until her third year at U.Va., when she discovered a group of students with similar interests, including club founder April Lowenthal, who graduated in 2000. "I was really surprised that there was anyone interested in doing that here," she said. "College-age girls are not known for that."

They formed the U.Va. Quilting Club, a University-recognized organization. The group, which then numbered about 15, gathered regularly at members’ apartments and produced several customized quilts for residents of Emmaus With Child, a local Christian maternity home for pregnant women in crisis.

"They just did fantastic work -- they were gorgeous," said Vicki Lennon, Emmaus With Child’s executive director.

Most of the members had never quilted before, but learned quickly, Dinan said.

"It’s so easy to do," she said. "People learned by the end of their first time."

Although much of the core group graduated or drifted away this year, Dinan knit together a regular group of four or five quilters -- mostly from the Catholic Student Association, another organization in which Dinan is active -- for weekly Thursday-night sessions through the fall. Academic pressures, scheduling difficulties and preparing for the days after graduation have cut into quilting time in the spring semester, but club members are working to finish one last quilt for Emmaus before graduation May 20, Dinan said.

She’s had to work her quilting around her studies, which she pursues with an unusual passion, according to her adviser, Allen Lynch, an associate professor of government and foreign affairs and director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies.

"Ms. Dinan consistently performed at the highest level of accomplishment, whether the assignment was an examination, weekly critiques of the literature, synthetic discussion of often contradictory material, or a major research assignment," he wrote from Germany, where he is teaching this semester. "[She] is driven by a burning intellectual curiosity and has taken the steps to ensure that her mind is tested to the limits, through study abroad (in Ireland), and through ambitious concentrations in French, government and foreign affairs, and Russian.

"On these grounds, I have no hesitation in confirming that Sarah Dinan is the best student that I have known in 12 years of teaching" at U.Va., Columbia College and New York University, he wrote.

After a summer trip to Paris, Dinan will enroll in a master’s program in international affairs at the University of Chicago, where she has received a full-tuition fellowship. She plans to focus on Russia. "I’m fascinated with Russian politics," she said.

She will also continue sewing, she said, perhaps making quilts for future nieces and nephews.

"I love to sew everything. I like to do things that are useful -- not like needlepoint that just hangs on the wall," she said.

Contact: Dan Heuchert, (804) 924-7676

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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Last Modified: Friday, 11-May-2001 09:17:33 EDT
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