A College for the World

Smith’s message of global engagement is finding a receptive audience among ambitious young women around the world.

by Lindsey Rowe Roberts ’06

Margaret Nyamumbo ’11 came to Smith from Kenya to study mathematics and economics.

Margaret Nyamumbo ’11 came to Smith from Kenya to study mathematics and economics.

Karen Kristof isn’t used to being treated like a celebrity, but in the fall of 2008, while visiting a school in Nanjing, on the south bank of China’s long Yangtze River, Smith’s senior associate director of admission was besieged by high school girls.

They crowded around her, waved their resumes, posed for pictures, and urged her to tell them what a women’s college was like and what Smith could do for them. Even Kristof, who spends four to five weeks of the year traveling the world on recruiting missions for Smith, was surprised by the enthusiastic greeting. “It’s unusual to have such a large and receptive audience,” she admits. “But in this case we even got a round of applause as we walked into the auditorium.”

Why the rock-star welcome? Two trends seem to be emerging, both of which are shaping Smith’s curricular and admission strategies. First, students around the world are becoming increasingly attracted to the kind of education a small liberal arts college like Smith can provide. Last year alone, Smith received a n astounding 968 international applications, nearly a quarter of its 4,011 applications in a record-breaking year. They came from places like Ghana, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Myanmar, and the People’s Republic of China. “There is a general sense that liberal arts colleges, and places like Smith in particular, are taking hold in countries around the world,” Kristof notes. “That’s because of the flexibility of the curriculum and the chance to explore a wide range of subjects before a major is declared. In most countries, including China, students either have to decide as they enter college or are pushed in a particular direction before college.”

Second, there is a growing awareness of the discrimination that women everywhere continue to encounter and a recognition of how education—specifically, the education of girls—can open doors and lift communities worldwide. In their latest book, Half the Sky, New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that women’s rights in the international community are today’s most urgent cause and that educating girls and women is often the best way to improve their—and by extension their families’—circumstances. Thus, when Karen Kristof (no relation to Nicholas) made her pitch for Smith to that audience of high school girls that fall in Nanjing, she was offering them more than an admissions speech; she was giving them hope for a better future. Ultimately, seven of the students Kristof met that afternoon accepted the college’s offer to come study at Smith. “It’s rare for us to have that many students from the same school,” Kristof says. “They all have enormous potential and will make significant contributions to the Smith community.”

Since 2002, international applications to Smith have increased 69 percent, according to President Carol Christ. International students comprise 12 percent of the class of 2013, compared to 7 percent of the class of 2012. Looking ahead, Kristof says the Office of Admission will continue to aim for 12 percent each year. The college’s goal is simple: strive for worldwide representation, rather than target specific countries. In some cases, that might mean accepting one or two girls from one country per year. The focus isn’t on the numbers, Kristof says, “It’s always about finding the most accomplished students from across the globe.”

President Christ is well aware of the role Smith can play in changing the lives of young women around the world. To that end, she has helped found Women’s Education Worldwide, a new organization that brings together the presidents and chief academic officers of women’s colleges and universities worldwide to foster exchange and to advocate for women’s education. “Now more than ever the world needs educated women from all nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds who are globally educated and prepared to lead,” Christ says. Whether a woman pursues her career in the United States or abroad, she will need to be able to work with people of differing backgrounds and experiences. “An education that engages her in doing this—in studying different cultures, in working and socializing with students from many different places and experiences—will prepare her for our increasingly flat world,” Christ says. “Smith, with its resources, distinction, and history, is the ideal institution to take on this challenge.”

Yingtong Ding ’13, from Nanjing, China, hopes to pursue a business career.

Yingtong Ding ’13, from Nanjing, China, hopes to pursue a business career.

To some high school girls, especially in America, the idea that a women’s college offers a unique education may seem anachronistic, especially as the black-and-white “battle of the sexes” grows grayer in Western countries. But the reality is that women in developing countries, who often face sexism, extremism, and lack of opportunity, would benefit most from what a women’s college offers. Says President Christ, “Women’s colleges give their students a powerful sense of agency in their community, which can lead to effective action, and an unusual self-confidence that together form a strong foundation for success.”

Education professor Rosetta Cohen has seen how young women in her classes have been transformed and inspired by the knowledge and confidence they gain by studying with other strong, capable women. She has taught classes on educational history for the past twenty years, and last fall she turned the attention of a first-year seminar to education around the world and, specifically, “the devastating conditions for girls and women seeking education in developing countries.”

For Cohen’s class of fourteen, learning of their fellow females’ experiences prompted some of them to take action. “Some of my students, even as first-years, are deeply committed to helping these women and have decided to devote their careers to this work,” Cohen says. One student already has done an internship with a microfinancing organization that supports women in Bangladesh, and another is planning to attend an international conference on women’s leadership in Dubai this spring. “They’re already deeply engaged and they’re only 18 years old,” Cohen says.

Margaret Mongare ’10 came to Smith so she could one day return home to Nairobi, Kenya, to help the people of her country access health care. Growing up, she saw tribal citizens trudge for miles to get to a makeshift medical center for malaria treatment. “I felt this was what I want to change,” she says. At Smith, she studies biochemistry and economics and plans to attend medical school after she graduates. “Coming here has helped me to look beyond just getting a job,” Mongare says. “Now I want to give back to the world. Africa needs its own people for its own problems, to make improvements that are sustainable. Our generation needs to take that responsibility very seriously.”

Smith, in the meantime, will continue to examine how best to prepare women for life in a global community. Next year, twenty faculty members and students will participate in “Why Educate Women?,” a project that Cohen and government professor Susan Bourque are developing for the Louise W. and Edmund J. Kahn Liberal Arts Institute that will examine women’s education in the United States, abroad, and in developing countries. It’s a question to which education professor Rosetta Cohen has a ready answer. “There’s a tremendous amount of research demonstrating the impact of women’s education on reducing poverty, lowering HIV infections, and improving living conditions,” she says. “Education correlates directly with lower birth rates and increased age of marriage. When women are educated, the odds increase exponentially that their daughters will be educated, too.”

Summer ’10 SAQ