At the end of June, my husband, Bill, and I packed up a moving van in Cambridge and headed west on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Our destination: Smith College. A couple of hours later, when we saw the sign for Exit 18, a feeling of great excitement came over both of us.
In the two months since Bill and I arrived on campus, that feeling has only deepened, especially as we approach the start of the fall semester and my inauguration next month.
Leading Smith is my dream job, and I am honored and humbled to join the long line of presidents whose ideas, vision and extraordinary wisdom have made Smith the exceptional college it is today. Jill Ker Conway, Mary Maples Dunn, Ruth Simmons and Carol Christ have all reached out to me in these early days of my presidency to share their advice and good wishes.
Their legacies inspire and motivate me every day.
In between unpacking boxes, I have spent my days observing, listening and learning. Summer, it turns out, is the perfect time to get to know Smith. It is relatively quiet, but with the School for Social Work in session and summer programs bringing girls from around the world to campus, I got a good sense of what life is like. I never had the privilege of living on a college campus, so I have been acutely aware of the many things—large and small—that make Smith so evocative: the intellectual buzz emanating from Seelye, the laughter from friends relaxing along Paradise Pond, the colorful gardens and walkways that every day pull me along and encourage new discoveries.
In early July, I picnicked with faculty and staff on Chapin Lawn. In my long career, I’ve eaten a lot of college food, but Dining Services outdid themselves. The food was delicious. And the stories I heard from staff (many of whom have been here for 25, 30, 35 years) only reinforced my impression that Smith is a community unlike any other, where everyone works together because they believe so strongly in our collective mission to educate women for the world.
This deep commitment to improving lives through education has a profound effect on the women who come here. From alumnae, I’ve heard particularly moving stories of how life-changing Smith is, of how meaningful and empowering it is to spend four years in an environment where every woman is told that she is worthy of the best education and can make a difference in the world. I can’t help wondering how much better the world would be if every girl heard that message every day.
Therein lies Smith’s power, and as I begin to shape the priorities of my presidency, I want us as a community to consider what more we can do to ensure that girls and women around the world understand the value of selective, higher education, and in particular, a Smith education.
One immediate way is by guaranteeing access. Late last year, the New York Times published a piece about the widening gap between rich and poor students who earn bachelor’s degrees. Thirty years ago, there was a 31-percentage point difference in the graduation rates between rich and poor; today, there is a 45-point difference. Sadly, economic inequality has led to education inequality, and we must be vigilant in our effort to ensure that education is not limited only to those who can afford it.
At Smith, support for low-income and first-generation students is infused across our culture. Through our campaign, Women for the World, we plan to increase our endowed financial aid funds by $200 million. Doing so will provide an additional $10 million a year for student scholarships.
As a first-generation college student myself, I know what financial aid can do for a young person with big dreams but perhaps little means to fulfill them. It gets you through a door that might otherwise have been closed. Once inside, as I discovered, you begin to think bigger, to realize your full potential, to broaden your ambitions. It’s how I got from a working-class neighborhood in Medford, Massachusetts, to the presidency of Smith College; I want every woman of promise who comes to Smith to have those same opportunities. They deserve no less.
In the years ahead, there will be other issues, too, that we must consider: the ever-increasing cost of higher education, the urgent need for more women in leadership positions in the U.S. and abroad and the demand that we develop innovative ways to deliver the liberal arts. I am grateful to be at a place that will drive the solutions.
Throughout its history, Smith has upended traditions and expectations. At every step, Smith women have been there, changing the culture, moving us forward, making us better. Let’s keep going. Together, let’s chart new ground, make new history. I’m ready. I hope you’ll join me.
This article appears in the Fall 2013 Quarterly