President's Perspective: The Pulse of Smith

Recently, an alumna asked, “What is the Smith DNA?” It’s a provocative question.Carol Christ

It is juniors Mackenzie Bradley and Emma Reim, who swam the English Channel this summer, a feat matched by only 1,200 people in history. As first-year students, they saw a plaque by the Smith pool, commemorating the three Smithies who had swum the Channel before; they resolved to do it. Swim coach Kim Bierwert embraced their dream and supervised their training. Alumnae as far away as London helped them fundraise. That’s the Smith DNA.

It’s Shehrbano Taseer ’10. When Shehrbano graduated, she returned to her native Pakistan where she began work for Newsweek as a journalist. Her father, Governor Salman Taseer, was assassinated. Despite her own peril, Shehrbano continues to speak out about her political beliefs. That’s the Smith DNA. Recently, my husband and I went to hear the first concert of the season by the Hartford Symphony. Their new conductor, Carolyn Kuan ’99, was at the podium. She’s one of the few women in the world who has broken “the glass podium.” She began conducting at Smith, through an internship given by Susan Rose ’64. That’s the Smith DNA.

This fall, Susan Spoehrer Elliott ’58 spoke on campus about her autobiography. When Susan graduated from Smith with an American studies major, she went to work for IBM because she didn’t want to be a secretary. When forced to leave the company because she was pregnant, she started her own company. Fifty years later she handed the leadership of the highly successful IT services company she founded, SSE, to her own daughter. That’s the Smith DNA.

Smith has been a pioneering institution since its founding. When Sophia Smith unexpectedly inherited a fortune at the age of 65, she was pressed very hard to give it to Amherst College. But she thought differently. She wanted to give women access to a higher education in every way as rigorous as that open to men. Smith’s early leaders established music and art curricula unprecedented at the time, as well as in the art collection that has evolved into our renowned museum. Since 1875, Smith has been educating women who have broken glass ceilings, glass podiums, glass barriers of many sorts.

The most critical issue in higher education today is access. Once first in the world in the share of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a college degree, the United States is now sixteenth. An important barrier is cost. In a ranking of the percentage of students with Pell grants at colleges with the fifty largest endowments, Smith is number two, after UCLA. Smith is indeed a private college with a public conscience.

Smith is a leader in its global reach and impact. Smith sends a larger percentage of students to study abroad for an entire year than any US college. In 2011, we were again the number one college in the United States in the number of Fulbright Fellowships our students and alumnae won, with nineteen fellowships, and even more astounding, a 50 percent success rate among our applicants. That’s the Smith DNA.

Critical to women’s leadership in the twenty-first century is increasing the number of women in STEM fields. Although women outnumber men in higher education, men outnumber women in virtually every field of science and engineering. At Smith, a third of our students major in the sciences. Smith has the first and only accredited engineering program in a women’s college, and the largest building—Ford Hall—ever built by a US college specifically for women to study science.

So what is the Smith DNA? It is access. It is leadership.

Alumnae often ask me how they can support Smith. There are three critical ways.

The first is fostering awareness. As alumnae, you are the best ambassadors for Smith in the world. Wear your Smith affiliation proudly, bring Smith into your conversations and public life, and we will continue to work hard to remain worthy of your allegiance.

The second is to embrace your role in the Smith community, both by participating in Smith’s many networks and by recognizing yourself as part of a global movement that seeks—in Sophia Smith’s words—“to develop as fully as may be the powers of womanhood, and furnish women with the means of usefulness, happiness, and honor.” We’ve seen it throughout history: as women thrive, society thrives.

The third way to support Smith is through philanthropy. Smith was a starting point for so many of you, a place that crystallized your passion to pursue the lives you enjoy today. We must ensure that Smith remains an equally powerful and relevant institution for the young women who come to Smith today and in the future.