President’s Perspective

Crossing borders and cultures

by Carol Christ

As I write this column, I have just returned from Istanbul, where our European alumnae held their biennial reunion. The reunion offered a vivid reminder of how broadly our alumnae are spread across the globe, and how deep are our international roots. Decades before other colleges embraced a global mandate, the Seven Sisters had extensive, well-developed international programs—study abroad, sister colleges in Asia, faculty exchanges. Smith’s third president, William Allan Neilson, was the chief architect of the college’s international strategy. Coming from outside the United States, he brought to Smith an international perspective and vision that we have continued to build upon in the decades that followed.

The world is now both bigger and smaller—a fact that Istanbul, at the nexus of east and west, makes vivid. We concentrated at our meeting in Istanbul on the subject of women in Turkey and experienced firsthand the passion with which Turkish women debate women’s issues. We saw a newly released documentary, not yet shown widely in Turkey, by young Turkish filmmaker Binnur Karaevli, titled Voices Unveiled: Turkish Women Who Dare, and we heard our own alumna, Farah Pandith ’90, talk about her work as the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities. Like the book we have chosen for all first-year students to read—Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky—the program in Istanbul reminded us how much is at stake for women in the world today.

Solving problems in our volatile, interconnected world demands leadership—principled, creative, galvanizing leadership that connects innovation to challenge at every level of human need. As talented young women are increasingly recognized as the hope of their nations, organizations, and families, Smith promises an education by which every student will be prepared to work across cultures, both within her own country and around the globe.

In order to deliver on this promise, we need to assure that from her first days on campus, every student will engage with international and intercultural issues. We want her to graduate from Smith with a global perspective, prepared to cross borders with sophistication and ease. At a presentation at Yale this past spring, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of coeducation, PepsiCo chairwoman Indra Nooyi identified globally educated leaders as business’s greatest need. When asked how one becomes such a leader, she replied that it happens only by living and working outside of one’s country.

For that reason, study abroad remains the linchpin of Smith’s global strategy, and we lead in higher education in the percentage of our students who study abroad for their entire junior year. However, many students, for good reasons, cannot study abroad as juniors. (And we could hardly operate the college if the entire junior class left Northampton!) We are, therefore, expanding opportunities to go abroad—through increasing numbers of international internships and through a new kind of class, called a global engagement seminar, in which faculty and students go abroad together to the site that they are studying. (Our three pilot seminars, planned for 2011, are “Jerusalem”; “Costa Rica: Globalization and Sustainability”; and “Greece: History, Culture, and Geology.”)

In addition to increasing opportunities to go abroad, we need to bring the world to Smith. We have made a commitment to double the number and percentage of our international students over the next three years. We have developed a new program, generously funded by one of our trustees, to bring a global leader in residence to the college each year, providing the opportunity for our students to learn from distinguished individuals in government, diplomacy, business, journalism, science, medicine, and the arts.

This summer, as Wright Hall receives a much-needed facelift, we are creating a Global Studies Center, located prominently at the entrance of the building, to signal our commitment to a global strategy. It will bring together our international programs, and serve as a locus for international news, issues, languages, scholars, events, opportunities, and conversations.

This year, we marked an important milestone in our commitment to global women’s leadership. In the nine years since we established our fellowships program, Smith women have received more than 100 Fulbright awards, one of the most prestigious international study appointments in the world. That remarkable milestone is a tribute not only to our students’ ambition, drive, and preparation but to the profound investment the Smith faculty makes in developing students to compete on a global stage.

This fall, I will be traveling extensively in Asia, including India, reaching out to alumnae, prospective students, and families, as well as university and secondary school leaders, building on longstanding affiliations and bringing Smith to new audiences. As record numbers of international students seek a US education, the core of my message will be this: Every student who comes to Smith leaves with the personal and intellectual capacities to lead in the world.