Life as They Know It

A look at alumnae who returned to campus for Reunion 2011

by Jenny Hall AC ’04

 
Every alumna who returns to Smith for Reunion has a story to tell—about the things she’s seen, what she’s done, and the woman she’s become. During this year’s celebration, we asked a handful of Smith women to reflect on the experiences that have shaped their lives since graduation.
 

 

 
Aquila Malikah El-Amin ’81 Aquila El-Amin
Major:Government/Afro-American studies

House: Jordan and Washburn
Hometown then: St. Albans, New York
Now: Baltimore, Maryland
Career:Educational consultant
 
On being Muslim at Smith: There were other Muslims on campus, but they blended in with the population. I stood out due to my name and the way I dressed. If I wanted to go to the mosque, Muslim friends from Amherst College or UMass would take me to Springfield.
 
Life after Smith: I had trouble finding a job when I left Smith. I feel that was directly related to racism and discrimination. I taught dance for a while, having been a dance major at the School of Performing Arts, and began teaching social studies and English for the New York City Board of Education in 1983. In 2008, I began working at Hamza Academy, a Muslim school serving mainly Indo-Pakistani students. I help teachers implement programs to better integrate students’ English grammar and comprehension skills for success in an educationally competitive world.
 
Smith in my life: I tell my son, the best two things that have happened to me were going to Smith and having him. I learned how to articulate my displeasure and stand up for myself in a diplomatic way at Smith, and I was inspired here and in my family by a lot of powerful women. I know I can achieve anything I put my mind to.
 
 
Okche AshwinOkche (Chon) Ashwin ’56
Major: French
House: Haven
Hometown then: Seoul, South Korea
Now: Adelaide, Australia
Career: Diplomatic service
 
How I came to Smith: I was 18 and had just started university when the North Koreans invaded South Korea. My brother and I hid in our attic in stifling heat for three months. We were frightened and hungry. UN forces drove the North back, but they returned and we all fled Seoul with just what we could carry. I applied to Smith College and was accepted with a tuition scholarship. I arrived here with US dollars bought on the black market hidden under the braid in my chignon. I was petrified and homesick. I stayed for days in my room at first. I wrote despairing letters to my mother. As a mother myself now, I realize how painful it must have been for her. But people were kind and I was invited for all the holidays.
 
Life after Smith: After graduation, I went to the Sorbonne. With student cards, we were able to live on little money and attend many cultural events. But when my mother’s health failed, I returned to Seoul. I taught French as a university lecturer there and worked as a translator and broadcaster on the side. That’s when I met my husband, an Australian diplomat. We raised two children and were posted to London, Bangkok, New York, Cairo, Bonn, and Moscow as ambassador.
 
Lasting life lessons from Smith: My years at Smith brought me maturity as well as a strong interest in America. My sense of community responsibility, coming initially, I suppose, from my experience during the war, was reinforced at Smith College. It isn’t enough to attend Smith and live happily ever after; you need to give back to your community and to the world.
 
 
Leticia Medina-Richman ’91 Leticia Medina-Richman
Major: English language and literature
House: Tyler
Hometown then: Bronx, New York
Now: Worcester, Massachusetts
Career: Staff attorney, Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts
 
Making a change: Japanese culture and language fascinated me and I spent my first two years taking intensive language courses and a whole variety of Japanese literature and culture classes before admitting it just wasn’t my best subject and switching to English. I had to take ten English classes my junior year to get the credits in. To say I spent a lot of time writing would be an understatement.
 
A broader view: Smith was the land of opportunity for me. I took squash, acting classes, calculus, and sightsinging. I was on junior varsity crew. I took riding lessons, and rode on the Smith equestrian team, which, for a kid coming from the Bronx, was a dream come true.
 
If I had it to do over again: I think I would have tried harder to complete Japanese, taken some art classes, and gone abroad my junior year. Then again, what I did do—volunteering at a shelter for battered women in Northampton—led to my interest in issues of social justice, so maybe it worked out for the best.
 
Life lessons: Though we were not of a privileged background, my mother did her best to ensure that we respected the value of a good education. A Smith education is a privilege and a gift many people don’t get.
 
 
Kerst NelsonKerst (Keets) Nelson ’06
Major: Neuroscience
House: Emerson
Hometown then: Hailey, Idaho
Now: Portland, Oregon
 
Early discoveries: Smith is so saturated with high-caliber students I quickly learned that I couldn’t—and didn’t need to—be the best at everything. I could just focus on what I was interested in. That realization has been hugely helpful in life.
 
Life after Smith: I worked in a neuroscience lab for two years but was turned off by the “publish or perish” mentality of research. I had been volunteering at a resource center for LGBTQ youth and began working there as an AmeriCorps member. It’s been interesting to do work that overlaps with my personal life.
 
A break from stereotypes: Growing up, I’d always struggled against being treated like a girl. As a primarily single-sex environment, Smith gave me a reprieve. I was simply treated as a person, a student. Returning to a world dictated by the binary gender system after graduating, I’ve put a lot of energy into figuring out where I fit in, and have taken steps to transition. I suppose one could say I have transitioned because now I struggle against being treated like a man.
 
What the future holds: I’m not sure, but I am going to a shaman next week, so maybe he’ll clue me in.
 
Joan Swenson Keenan ’51 Joan Swenson
Major:English
House: Tyler
Hometown then: Chesterfield, Massachusetts
Now: Washington, DC, and Chesterfield
Career: Children’s librarian
 
How I came to Smith: My father lost everything in the Wall Street crash the same month I was born, so our family moved to a house in the country built by my great-grandfather in Chesterfield, near Northampton. When my two older sisters reached college age, my mother (Sheila Bryant Swenson 1909), who had never worked outside the home in her life, asked Mrs. Laura Scales if there would be any chance of a job at Smith so her daughters could attend. Mrs. Scales found her a job as the head of what were then four houses, called the Henshaw House annex. I grew up skating on Paradise Pond and playing on campus.
 
Course selection: I received lots of advice from my sisters on what professors they had liked, so I had an advantage and could choose courses according to the professors who taught them. I took Shakespeare with Miss Esther Dunn (we addressed all the professors as “Miss” back then), Bible literature with Mary Ellen Chase, the ancient world with Eleanor Duckett, and French with Miss Marine Leland.
 
Career: I loved books and literature, so I decided to pursue a master of library science specializing in children’s literature. It has been a wonderful career.
 
 
Mildred BernsteinMildred Henrich Bernstein ’36
Major: Psychology
House: German
Hometown then:West Norwalk, Connecticut
Now: St. Petersburg, Florida
Career: Clinical child psychologist
 
Curfew: There were two movie houses in town. The one that played the movies that we wanted to see ran their showings until just ten o’clock, which was exactly our curfew, so we had only two options: either miss the end of the movie, or sit through to the end and then race frantically up the Green Street hill and hope to get there before the doors were locked.
 
Life after Smith: This was in the Depression, you know, so money was tight. The telegram notifying me of my first job read: “You get room and board, such as it is. We are happy to tell you that thus far, everyone has survived.” Three years later, I got my first paying job in Springfield for $2,000 a year. That enabled me to move out of the YWCA and rent an apartment with three other girls. We each paid $25 monthly. I saved enough money during that time to buy a car. It was a tan 1941 Studebaker. I was so proud of that car! I drove it everywhere, even out to Chicago.
 
Life today: I belong to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute sponsored by Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. I volunteer and take classes there, most recently a seminar on the romantic composers. I attend concerts by the St. Petersburg Symphony and frequently visit both the Dali and the Chihuly museums.
 
Deborah Davis ’76 Deborah Davis
Major: Molecular biology
House: Lawrence
Hometown then: Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania
Now: West Chester, Pennsylvania
Career: Medical director, Nemours Cardiac Center; anesthesiologist/intensivist, A.I.DuPont Hospital for Children
 
Escapades: I am a proud founding member of the Smith Prank Committee. One Easter, we spray-painted all those old cement balls that used to line the walkways as Easter eggs and scattered them around campus. We put a clutch under the owl in front of Wright Hall. We were totally underground. No one (until now) knew who we were.
 
Breaking barriers: Coming from Smith, it never occurred to me not to run for president of my medical school class. I became the first woman ever elected. Later, when the women students were relegated to the nurses’ bathroom but the male students got to change in the doctors’ lounge, I just walked in and began changing in the doctors’ lounge. After all, that was where the case assignments were made, and I wanted equal access to cases! People got my point and it transformed the way the surgical rotations were conducted. I never would have had the chutzpah to do that if it hadn’t been for Smith.
 
What I’d tell Smith students today: Be a sponge. Soak up every opportunity Smith has to offer. It’s a luxury that won’t happen again.
 
 
Elizabeth CrowellElizabeth Crowell ’86
Major: English language and literature
House: Gillett
Hometown then: Glen Ridge, New Jersey
Now: Concord, Massachusetts
Career: MFA in poetry from Columbia University, writer/teacher
 
First impressions: Growing up I heard all about Smith from my mother, Helen Bennett Crowell ’50. When we visited, I thought, “Wow! This is a great place with great people.” The roar of convocation really sealed the deal.
 
Surprises: I was shocked at how hard I had to work. In English, no less, a subject I considered mine. I can still remember taking a wonderful class with Joan Garrett Goodyear, “Love and the Literary Imagination,” and just squeaking by with a passing grade. I ended up taking another class with her, “The English Novel.” She taught me so much.
 
Hijinks: Once we broke into the kitchen and hijacked bottles of cooking wine and drank it up on the roof of Gillett. One of the women is now getting her PhD in theology, so it doesn’t appear to have had a lasting effect on our character.
 
Lessons learned at Smith: I directed the Rally Day show twice, was house president, and on the judicial board. From that I learned that a lot of being a leader is just deciding to do something. You don’t have to be a genius, you just have to be willing to step up and learn.
 
Tomoe Tase Ogino ’01  Tomoe Ogino
Major: Studio art
Hometown then and now: Tokyo
Career: Fashion buyer, public relations, now at home with children Sayuki, Kento, and Ayane
 
How I came to Smith: We had lived several years in the States during my childhood. After we returned to Japan, I could not forget the great times I had had here, and did not want to lose my English. My older sister, Nao Tase Iwanami ’98, came to Smith, and her experience here influenced my decision.
 
Culture shock: In Japan, the push is to get into college. Once you are there, the work eases off. Not at Smith! I was amazed at how hard everyone worked, and how seriously they took their studies.
 
Life at Smith: Being in the US was a huge adjustment. First, because English was not my first language, I had to work very hard. I carried my English-Japanese dictionary everywhere. Second, because I had never lived with non-Japanese before, many customs were foreign to me. Standards of cleanliness in bathrooms and kitchens, for instance, or seeing people walk around barefoot. How open everyone is about same-sex relationships, and how everything comes in huge cups.
 
Passion for fashion: I went to Florence for JYA. My host family was a couple in their seventies who treated me as their granddaughter. While there, I took classes in fashion design and knew that was what I wanted to do.
 
Frances FurlongFrances Johnson Furlong ’46 
Major: Music
House: Sessions
Hometown then and now: Montclair, New Jersey
Career: Financial analyst, stockbroker
 
War years: My time here was framed by the war. Every boy I knew had been drafted. We girls combed the war news in the New York Times every day. The college used our food ration tickets to buy food. I married my childhood sweetheart in April of my junior year. He left Brown to become the senior gunnery officer on a destroyer minesweeper in the Pacific. When he came home, he finished college at Amherst because I was at Smith. We had to get special permission from the colleges to be able to rent a room off campus to live together in Northampton.
 
Learned at Smith: Smith helped me become more disciplined. I studied both piano and voice. If I wasn’t practicing, I was studying. I had to be extremely focused.
 
Life after Smith: My husband and I had six children. Volunteer work was very important to me. I worked mainly in parochial schools in Newark and in New York City. Those children were so poor; I remember some of them coming to school without shoes in the winter. I taught choral music and started glee clubs. In 1973 I returned to work as a financial planner. I worked at various financial institutions, including Shearson Lehman and American Express. I retired from Smith Barney as a vice president in 2005.
 
Music for the soul: Music has remained a constant in my life. I remember two of the pieces I played for my senior recital at Smith: a Chopin Polonaise and the Gavotte in D minor by Rameau. Beethoven remains a perennial favorite.
 
Janet Exter Butler ’66Janet Butler
Major: Religion
House: Franklin King
Hometown then: Mountain Lakes, New Jersey
Now: Dover, New Hampshire
Career: Teacher, school counselor
 
Six sisters: There were six of us up on the third floor in Franklin King, and we’ve remained dear, dear friends throughout our lives. The house system and the big sister/ little sister relationship makes for lasting friendships. In fact, it was my big sister who introduced me to my husband. We’ve been happily married for forty-four years.
 
A magical community: Smith taught me to believe in myself. I was initially intimidated to find myself surrounded by so many smart women, but over time, the feeling of being a part of such a wonderful community was magical. The older I get, the more I appreciate what Smith gave me.
 
Life after Smith: I started out teaching elementary school, and when our youngest son was in high school, I went back to school and got my MEd in counseling. I worked as a school counselor for eighteen years.
 
The gift of giving: My husband is a general surgeon who has volunteered for many years with surgical teams in Guatemala, Haiti, and the Philippines. I accompany these teams and have found countless ways to help out—scrubbing and autoclaving surgical instruments, feeding and bathing malnourished children, assisting the dentist in remote villages with tooth extractions, and adopting a small school in Jeremie, Haiti. My husband and I have sponsored a daily feeding program for over 100 students. Back in the States, my students have done countless fundraising activities to purchase supplies for this adopted school. Their lives, and mine, have been enriched by the gift of giving.
 
 
Lee AdinolfiLee Ellison Adinolfi ’61
Major: Zoology
House: Tyler
Hometown then: Short Hills, New Jersey
Now: Paso Robles, California
Career: Landscape architect
 
How I came to Smith: My mother, Katherine Kreitler ’35, was an alumna. It was simply expected that I attend. I wasn’t rebellious, and loved it here immediately.
 
Expectations: Well, you know, this was just before everything changed in terms of what women expected from their lives. I thought I would get married and care for my family. I think there’s some sense in our generation that we missed out a bit.
 
Life after Smith: I was recruited out of college as a lab assistant at the Rockefeller University Institute, where I had the good fortune to work with George Palade, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1974 for descriptions of structure and function of cell organelles. I met my husband and we had two children and moved to California.
 
Career switch: When I was in my late thirties, I went back to school for my certification as a landscape architect. It’s been a great profession for me, allowing me to blend science and design. In 1990 I started my own business, Lee Adinolfi & Associates, doing mostly residential design. Here in California, my work involves xeriscaping, of course, but also incorporating natural controls to erosion and fire.

Madeline Phillips ’86Madeline Phillips
Major: Economics
House: Comstock
Hometown then and now: Memphis, Tennessee
Career: Medicaid rebate analyst, Pfizer, Inc.
 
The Smith network: I got my first job through Linda Kaplan ’58, who made introductions on my behalf. I am very active in the Memphis Smith Club, working as an admissions contact for high school students and guidance counselors. I do this as a way of giving back, because throughout my time at Smith and beyond, I have received such great support from alums.
 
Life lessons at Smith: I was encouraged to develop skills as a leader and volunteer for causes I was passionate about here. Believe me, that quality of leadership is something CEOs will recognize about you and value. I continue to volunteer with the League of Women Voters.
 
Continuing effects: I took ballet classes with Rosalind deMille while I was at Smith, and jazz and Afro-Caribbean with legendary visiting instructor Pearl Primus. I continue to dance today. Current favorites are Latin and Modern dance.
 
Favorite Smith vista: The view of Paradise Pond. I lived in Comstock for two years so that was my daily walk. Whether it was snowing or the trees were blossoming in spring, it was a beautiful way to start and end the day.
 
Sandy HazanowSandra Hazanow ’86
Major: Biological sciences
House: Hopkins
Hometown then: Miami, Florida
Now: Oakland, California
Career: Partner, Seven Hills Veterinary Hospital; President, San Francisco Veterinary Medical Association
 
Smith women: For my application to Smith, I was asked to write an essay on a quote by George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” When I got here, I was thrilled to find myself surrounded by unreasonable women! It quickly became clear to me that each of us would go on to change the world in our own unique way.
 
Memorable professors: Elizabeth Horner [biological sciences]. She had a contagious fascination for her work. It was inspiring to see someone of her age so passionate. She was a real pioneer and a role model for young women in her field.
 
Life after Smith: After completing my veterinary education and a small animal internship in Sacramento, California, I began working in San Francisco, and doing additional training in surgery. In March of last year, two of my colleagues and I purchased a veterinary practice in San Francisco.
 
What Smith means in my life: I grew up living in different countries in South America and Asia and my first two languages are Japanese and Spanish. Maybe because of this somehow, Smith has always felt like home to me. The supportive environment here helps women reach their true potential intellectually, creatively, and socially.
 
 

Photos: Jim Gipe