In My View: Smith Is

An alumna looks back at her time at Smith with new perspective

by Emily Markussen Sorsher ’04

I found myself tagged on Facebook by a classmate. In her message she talked about how much she missed her Smith years, how formative they were, how much she missed the atmosphere. And I'm pretty sure that between the two of us, we could talk every girl in America into attending our alma mater; Smith should hire us.

Emily Sorsher ’04
 Emily Markussen Sorsher ’04 and Appa in Orange County, CA, New Year's Day 2011.
I've been thinking about Smith a lot recently. I know that everyone looks back at their college years with a certain amount of nostalgia, but I wondered what it was that made Smith such a compelling place for those of us who attended. Lord knows I had enough people ask me why I chose to go to a women’s college on the other side of the country from my home in California. Why I stayed even though I missed having men and sunlight around. And in looking back with a very rosy lens, these are the things that I love about Smith, what made my time there invaluable, even when I cried myself to sleep at night. These are the things I wish I could capture and infuse into my adulthood. To me, this is what Smith is:
Smith is voices. Constant, never-ceasing voices. Voices from the American Parliamentary Debate Association, arguing everything from the Bible to the Cuban Missile Crisis on campuses from Maryland to Maine. Voices filling Sage Hall in October for Autumn Serenade, and John M. Greene Hall for Christmas Vespers. Hundreds of altos and sopranos singing in Latin, Spanish, Japanese, German. Voices outside my room, singing “Lady Madonna” a cappella to welcome me to the group. Voices of speakers like Molly Ivins ’66 and Rachel Maddow, who spoke to us on the power of women and the power of words. Voices of students demanding that their school reflect the people who attended. Voices of professors who told stories to engage us rather than assign a TA to run a PowerPoint. The voice of my adviser saying, “Emily, at least consider taking a math class.” Voices of drunken girls in the hallway coming home from the Quad. Voices of my girlfriends telling me it was after lunch and I couldn’t miss my 2 p.m. class again, so get the hell out of bed.
Smith is words. In particular, words I didn’t know, and I had a vocabulary that rivaled anyone in my high school. But I was less familiar with words like “queer,” “hegemony,” “teleology.” Words took on a new character at Smith. They were, for the first time, a challenge, and one I didn’t always meet. I frequently used my books as a table for holding cookies and brie en croute, but that which I did read made me intellectually rich. I was introduced to new ways of seeing the world. How does a James Bond soundtrack change the way you watch movies? How much can a vase tell us about a dead civilization? What does a persimmon mean to a poet? I had always prided myself on my words, and the way I used them; I was woefully unprepared for the bright minds at Smith. The women of Smith were well-read, well-spoken. They used words as weapons, and they used them to unify. I think a shared love of words is what brought us all to Smith in the first place.
Emily as a a senior at Smith.
Sorsher as a Smith senior in 2004.
Smith is air. Freezing cold air that bites into the skin. Air full of acorns being hurled at you from the trees outside Neilson Library, as classmates held their books over their heads and ran to class. Air that was kept at a constant 95 degrees Fahrenheit in my room—everyone stripped off clothes when they walked in. Air that crackled with static electricity when you entered a building and made your hair stand out from your head. Air that was always vibrant and moving, full of the energy of students and discipline and art. Air that smelled like sunshine just in time for Commencement and like apple cider every fall. New England was full of nothing but air—no smog, no strip malls. You could truly be away from everything, if you wanted. I miss that now.
Smith is time. It is, in fact, its own time zone. Days at Smith began around noon and ended around 2 a.m. (possibly that was just for me). Time was marked by rituals: Friday afternoons were tea, Thursday nights were candlelight dinner, February was for Rally Day, Mountain Day was in October. For every moment a celebration of who we were. Nighttime went from being impossibly lonely to being a recurring slumber party, complete with screenings of “Top Gun” and barrels of licorice. Hours in class went slowly, breaks in New York too fast, Winter Weekend whipped by. Four years dragged on, then were over in a moment.
Smith is power. Adolescent women demanding power that they didn’t understand, grandmothers who were denied an education taking power back. A cadre of CEOs in our alumnae clubs, women who followed their passions and rewrote the rules. Betty Friedan ’42 and Gloria Steinem ’56 and the ladies they inspired, who worked their way to the top and then kept working. Power meant creating your own major, forcing your way into your dream internship, telling your parents you were gay. Power meant not a hope, but an expectation that you would be at the top of your industry. Power meant refusing to back down and taking pride in the things that made you different instead of hiding the pieces of your spirit that simply would not conform. Power meant having 2,000 women behind you, and next to you, and surrounding you.
I wish that the Smith spirit were in every home, easy to tap into and easy to hold onto. But I’ve found that most people, regardless of how much they love their college, don’t have that same feeling of absolute belonging. What Smith really gave us was identity—the feeling that we were part of one team, one house, one family. I am friends with Smithies still in school and with Smithies who haven’t been to school since the 1950s. That connection always exists between us. It exists on Facebook, it exists in phone calls between friends who haven’t spoken in years, it exists in the easy conversations between classmates who barely knew each other before Reunion. That is the Smith College I miss, and the Smith that made me the woman I am today. I love you, Smithies. I hope this note reminds you of who we are and what we have.
Emily Markussen Sorsher '04 is a native Californian who graduated from Smith with a bachelor’s degree in history, and holds a master’s degree in history as well as secondary teaching credentials for English/language arts and social science, all from the University of California at Irvine. She taught English, public speaking, and social science in grades 7-12 before moving to a career in non-profit development.